No small wonder as Nishikori grows in stature

No small wonder as Nishikori grows in stature
Fleet-footed Kei Nishikori of Japan hits a backhand against Steve Johnson of the US in the third round of the Australian Open yesterday. The world No. 5 recovered from dropping the first set to win 6-7 (7-9), 6-1, 6-2, 6-3.

Kei Nishikori should be literally grateful for small mercies. At 178cm, in modern tennis terms a bonsai fellow, he has spent his first three matches in Melbourne looking up at his opponents during handshakes. It must get tiresome felling trees.

But in the next round he will be in the unlikely position of looking down. His rival is 175cm and his name is David Ferrer. Note to Nishikori: Bring extra shoes and shirts. This match will be decided by points won but also miles run.

Yesterday's elevated offering for the Japanese was American Steve Johnson, 188cm, the strapping son of a tennis coach also named Steve Johnson who tutored him till he was in college. But no collection of Johnsons could have defeated Nishikori yesterday.

The Japanese, the only Asian left in the fourth round, won 6-7 (7-9), 6-1, 6-2, 6-3. In boxing terms, the American had a longer reach but Nishikori, who moves like an electric current, was hard to catch.

The Open is almost at its middle and on reasonably cool days only the metaphorical heat is rising. The points at stake are more and the money (A$109,250 or S$116,175, just to get to the fourth round) is higher.

But really they're playing for the simplest reason: To get better. Even Novak Djokovic, who at No.1 has nowhere higher to go numerically, is trying just to be a better No.1.

Rarely do two players of equal calibre and equal ambition collide on court in the third round. Johnson, No.156 this time last year, is No.38 now. He does not need his mother, a maths professor, to tell him he is improving.

Last year he lost in the first round here; this year he got to the third round, all the while hitting forehands that leave faint dents on the court.

He is better, yet part of the suffering of sport is that right after a match, even if defeated by a world No.5, "better" is no balm. From Federer to Johnson, losing is an ache. "Tomorrow," said Johnson, "I will look at the positives."

Nishikori is operating on his own plane, playing fascinating tennis of accelerating intellect. He must move fast and think faster and he has done it well enough to rise from No.18 in January last year to No.5 now. But if life is better for Nishikori, then it is also harder.

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