Grand Slam a possibility for Kei Nishikori, believes Michael Chang
On-form Japanese has what it takes to become first Asian-born man to win a major, believes former champion now on his coaching staff
Michael Chang has tipped talented Japanese sensation Kei Nishikori to become the first Asian man to win a grand slam, saying it could happen as soon as the French Open next month.
Nishikori, one of the hottest young players on the men's circuit, is the first Japanese to break into the world's top 10. He climbed to number 9 last week after coming close to defeating Rafael Nadal in the Madrid Open final last weekend. Chang became part of Nishikori's coaching team last December after the latter agreed that Chang's young family could accompany him.
"Winning a grand slam is certainly a possibility. Kei is beating guys who have won slams or got to the finals and that will be a confidence booster for him to say, 'Hey, I'm doing well against these players, so why can't I just do as well [as them]'," said Chang, who was in Hong Kong last week to sign up as an ambassador for California Fitness. He was accompanied by his wife Amber - a two-time NCAA singles champion - and their two young daughters.
"My family travels with me. I don't want to be away from them, especially when my kids [one and three] are so young. I have travelled around the world so much that it wasn't worth it to be away from them.
"I told Kei this could be a deal breaker, but I needed to have my family travel with me, and he said 'Yup, no problem'. Kei actually has a lot of fun with my girls and he is fine with it," said Chang, who used to be a big favourite with the Hong Kong fans back when the city hosted an ATP tournament.
Nishikori will hope to draw inspiration from Chang, 42, who became the youngest grand slam champion - at the tender age of 17 - when he won the French Open in 1989, defeating Ivan Lendl in an epic five-setter in the last 16 before going on to beat Stefan Edberg in the final.
Chang, whose parents came from Taiwan, was raised in the United States. No Asian-born man has ever won a grand slam. China's Li Na was the first Asian woman to win a slam.
"Kei has had a great clay court season so far, winning in Barcelona and getting to the finals in Madrid. Hopefully he can draw more strength from the way he has been playing," said Chang, who is on his way to Paris to join up with Nishikori before the French Open gets under way this Sunday.
"He had a good French Open last year, reaching the last 16, and it would be nice to improve on that.
"It is all a matter of taking things step by step and he can't get too far ahead of himself. He has been making good progress and has gained a lot of confidence and belief in his game and it's starting to show," Chang said.
Nishikori came agonisingly close to beating Nadal for the first time in seven meetings in last weekend's Madrid Open final before injury struck again. In control at 6-2, 4-3, he felt a twinge in his hip and went on to lose the second set 6-4 before retiring at 0-3 in the third. But after wins in Memphis and Barcelona this year, the Florida-based Nishikori has demonstrated he has the weapons to topple the giants.
"I will catch up with him in Paris next week and we will have a bit of time to prepare before the French Open starts. It will be time spent in refining things and getting used to the conditions.
"My role is as a coach, but I don't travel with him full time. Dante [Bottini] does that and I've been coming on for selected tournaments and working on different things in the training blocks we have, while also travelling to the bigger tournaments.
"We have put in a lot of hard work to a lot of different aspects of his game and there are lots or areas he can improve upon, which is exciting. It's been a good combination and the team has been working well and the results are good signs that things are going well.
"The tough thing about being a coach is once he steps out on the court there is nothing else you can do."