Nishikori still Asia’s best hope of Wimbledon success

There is no secret about the identity of the Asian player most likely to become the first from the giant continent to win a single’s title at Wimbledon.

With the 2017 edition of the prestigious tournament about to start, the weight of expectation of all tennis fans in the east falls mainly on the shoulders of Kei Nishikori.

History, both of the personal and continental kind, suggests it will be far from easy however. Asia is improving in tennis but is still catching up with those nations who have been producing champions for decades.

Li Na set the Asian standard. The Chinese woman was a huge star in her homeland and then Asia due to her stellar success.

Feisty on the court and off, Li won the French Open in 2011 and then followed that by winning the Australian Open three years later. She also reached the last four of the US Open and made Wimbledon Quarter-finals on three separate occasions. Asian fans lost an icon when injury forced her to retire. She never won Wimbledon or really came close, but it would have been a huge deal if she had.

There have been suggestions and hints that something special could happen on the green grass of South-west London over the years but they didn’t last too long. Shuzo Matsuoka reached the last eight in 1995 and even took the first set against Pete Sampras before the American came roaring back.

Who can forget the excitement in London and Bangkok in 2002 when Paradorn Srichapan knocked out number three seed Andre Agassi? The fact that it was in straight sets was even more impressive. His best result came a year later as he eliminated a youthful Rafael Nadal to reach the fourth round.

The women came a little closer. Zheng Jie did what Li Na was could not and reached the last four in 2008, despite entering the tournament as a wild card. It took Serena Williams to end her run. Kimiko Date-Krumm reach the semis in 1996, disposing of Conchita Martinez and Mary Pierce, third and eight seeds respectively along the way. Steffi Graf was another giant of the game who was just too good in the last four.

There have been some good performances over the years but it is time surely for an improvement. It is time to see an Asian player at least reach the final and the dream has to be, of course, the title itself.

The fans are behind him.

Progress has been made. In June, there was a third round match at the French Open between two Asian players, the biggest such All-Asian Grand Slam meeting between men in history. It was South Korea versus Japan as Nishikori needed all five sets to get past Hyeong Chung. It was a high quality and epic showdown on a big stage. It was encouraging.

Ranked number nine in the world, the Japanese star has the potential but it is clear that grass is not his favourite surface.

He reached the final of the US Open in 2014, losing to Marin Cilic. There have been three quarter-final appearances at the Australian Open and two in Paris. Yet in Wimbledon, his best showing is the fourth round although he has had to retire hurt into the last two tournaments.

Injuries have marred his preparation for this tournament and that makes his task that bit tougher. Nishikori has rarely looked completely comfortable on grass but he has the quick ground strokes to shine on the surface and he also has a solid backhand. What perhaps holds him back to an extent is the fact that his serve is not as fast and powerful as it could be and in the men’s game on grass that is a major disadvantage.

Yet there is hope. Some of the favourites are not at the top of their game either. Number one seed Andy Murray is not in great form and that is the least that can be said about Novak Djokovic who, at the moment, does not look like a three-time Wimbledon champion. Rafael Nadal has not played a competitive game on grass for two years though did return to form in June as he won the French Open.

The Spaniard is seen as the second most likely to win. Roger Federer is perhaps the best-placed after electing to rest rather than take part in the French Open.

Nishikori is one of those in the group below who can take advantage of the relative struggles of the top four seeds. He is not one of the favourites, but he still has a good chance.

Wimbledon with its fast grass surfaces can provide a unique and tricky challenge and he would not be the first to prefer other surfaces but others have initially struggled in London only to become more comfortable as the years passed.

The field looks more open than usual and if Nishikori was in the best shape and form, then it could perhaps be labelled as the Japanese star’s best chance. You never know.

It is hard to see an Asian pair of hands on the trophies this year but one day it will happen. The question is when and not if.