Nishikori stands tall in the game of giants

2015May24041841_473466122(Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

PARIS — Height is might. That age-old adage holds true for basketball, swimming, badminton, volleyball and a long list of other sports.

With tennis, height is a tall advantage. You serve from a higher trajectory. You sprint left and reach that backhand faster. Your long legs assist you in that dash to flick the drop shot. When you stretch for a volley, those added inches help.

The average height of the top men’s tennis pro: around 6-foot-1. That’s the height of Roger and Rafa and Pete Sampras. Novak is an inch taller. Andy Murray stands 6’3”. Marin Cilic, the reigning US Open champion and whom I watched from a few feet away this week, has two Eiffel Tower-like legs. He stands 6’6”.

The other day, a giant of a server slammed 219-kph aces against his French opponent. (Although the crowd reveled in their local player’s win.) That American is John Isner, looming tall at 6-foot-10.

Tennis today is different from tennis in the ‘70s or ‘80s. Ushered in by Boom-Boom himself — 6-foot-2 Boris Becker, who continues to be an attraction here, sitting on the stands as his student Novak Djokovic plays — the game today is all-power.

Gone were the days of Ken Rosewall’s slice backhands or Rod Laver’s chip and charge. In the countless hours that I’ve sat by the sideline to watch the professionals at Roland Garros, they do mostly one thing: smother, destroy, crush and butcher. Their weapon of choice is a tennis racket and their unfortunate target is a yellow ball.

In one of the first matches we saw here, I joined Jasmin and Jana in watching Treat Huey. You know Treat! He’s our top Filipino player who’s traveled from America to Cebu several times for Davis Cup action.

Treat and his partner Scott Lipsky won the first set in men’s doubles. We were ecstatic and hoped for victory. Sadly, they lost the next two sets and bombed-out in the first round. Their opponents, two unknowns from Europe, employed a simple tactic: they mutilated the ball. They must have stood 6-foot-4 tall and they just ravaged their shots.

Kei Nishikori is the exception. The Japanese hits clean and hard, but he’s no physical giant. Compared to the Sam Querreys and Ivo Karlovics, he’s small at 5’10”. Yet, he’s winning. He won in Barcelona a few weeks ago and, thus far, he’s into the fourth round in Paris.

At Court Philippe Chatrier earlier this week, I watched him play a dangerous opponent in Thomas Bellucci. He clobbered him in straight sets.

The 25-year-old Kei is an exceptional talent. Given his small physique, he has terrific hands and amazing eye-to-hand coordination. He doesn’t stand 15 feet from the baseline like Nadal; he stands inside the baseline to pound on his ground-strokes. He hits on the rise. That’s why he’s world No. 5 — possibly the highest-ever ranking for an Asian.

CORIC. The best match I’ve seen here: Borna Coric defeating Tommy Robredo in five sets. They played in Court 2 last Thursday and I was fortunate to sit on the third row. Behind me sat Goran Ivanisevic (who, like Coric, hails from Croatia) and three seats to my left was Thomas Johansson, the former Australian Open champion who now coaches Coric.

This kid is a future champ. His serve reaches 205-kph and I like his two-fisted backhand. He steps forward and, armed with a compact swing, delivers a deadly crosscourt drive.

Only 18, he also defeated Sam Querrey in the first round and, if he wins his upcoming encounter against Jack Sock, he’ll meet Nadal in the fourth round — a titillating contest given that Coric upset the Spaniard last year. Watch out for Coric.

AJ LIM. There’s one other Filipino who’s joining here: Alberto Lim, Jr., one of our bright prospects in PHI tennis. He joined the qualifying round of the junior category in Roland Garros but lost a French player.

AJ is only 16 but he was world-ranked 45 last month in the juniors (he’s now 74.). We hope someday that he’ll be the Kei Nishikori of the Philippines.

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