Kei Nishikori is the best of a mediocre bunch

Asian players' failure to muscle into top tennis rankings unlikely to end soon,even with Japanese ace's breakthrough

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 May, 2014, 11:37pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 May, 2014, 11:37pm

There are 4.3 billion people in Asia, so surely there must be a tennis champion among them. Well, there is but none of the male variety, unless you go back to Japan's Jiro Sato who was ranked number three in the world - in 1933. The highest-ranked Asian player of the modern era was Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan, who made it all the way to number nine in 2003.

And that, folks, is the extent of it, which is more than pathetic; it's flat-out embarrassing. The world's most populous continent featuring two of the top three economies and they are absolutely putrid at one of the most popular global games, one that also happens to be a multibillion-dollar industry as well.

It drives the people at the ATP crazy. They look at all the money in Asia right now and are salivating over the prospect of a tennis version of Yao Ming or a male replica of China's two-time grand slam champion Li Na.

Health is easily Nishikori's biggest obstacle. His body has repeatedly broken down
Tim Noonan

Currently Wu Di and Zhang Ze are the best of a thin mainland crop, but neither has come even remotely close to breaking into the top 100 and, according to world number two Novak Djokovic, there won't be a top-flight Asian star for a while. "In the next five years, I don't see it happening," he said a few months back in China, "but you know, maybe I'm wrong."

Or maybe with the rampant China lust gripping the West right now we're just looking in the wrong country.

Last week was actually one of the most eventful in men's Asian tennis. Not only did Japan's Kei Nishikori become the second continental player to crack the top 10, he also made it all the way to the final of the Madrid Open before losing a heartbreaking match to Rafael Nadal.

There is certainly no shame in losing to the greatest clay-court player yet in his home country. However, Nishikori hammered Nadal 6-2 in the first set and was in the process of closing him out in the second when he tweaked his often-injured back and was forced to retire in the third set down 3-0.

Still, it was a fearless display from the painfully shy 24-year old, who seems to have everything to succeed at the highest levels, in particular his mental toughness.

According to former Japanese professional Shuzo Matsuoka, who has been closely following Nishikori for the past 13 years, this is the great Asian hope. "He has the touch of a genius, great imagination," he said. "He has shots in his locker you just can't teach. Breaking into the top 10 is just the start."

At a slight 1.78 metres, Nishikori is arguably the fastest player on tour and both his serve and groundstrokes now have more heft. Despite the dearth of quality placings by Asian men over the years, the goal has to be more than just winning the Madrid Open. In order to move a country and a continent, nothing less than a victory at a grand slam will do.

After retiring from the final in Madrid, Nishikori skipped this week's Rome Masters so he could be ready for next week's French Open.

His work on clay has been exceptional so if his health holds up, he certainly has a puncher's chance. However at this stage, health is easily Nishikori's biggest obstacle. His body has repeatedly broken down, and make no mistake; winning a grand slam is one of the most gruelling tests in sports, particularly for the men, who need to win three sets per match over seven rounds in a two-week period.

Small wonder that physically imposing players like Nadal and Andy Murray have had such great success. The more fluid stars like Roger Federer and Djokovic are much larger and robust than Nishikori and even Paradorn was a strapping physical specimen, and not just by Asian standards.

In order to parlay and enhance his strengths, Nishikori hired Michael Chang as his coach back in January and the results have been impressive. The diminutive Chang's game was based on speed and counter punching and he freely admits that Nishikori has more of a knockout punch than he did.

Of course, a breakthrough victory by Nishikori would be huge in Japan. But despite the regional enmity it should be huge in all of Asia as well and nowhere more so than China. A fierce competitor, Nishikori is showing that the size of one's heart is the most important factor in determining success. If he could overcome the limits of his physical stature, so too could the underachieving male tennis players in China.