It is rare that an opponent can push Kei Nishikori around in the fashion that Stan Wawrinka did Wednesday in their Australian Open quarterfinal Wednesday afternoon. The No. 4 seed ascended to an almost untouchable level, similar to what we saw from him in his run to the Australian Open title 12 months ago.
Wawrinka held nothing back, blasting away with stunning consistency.
A bombardment of aces and overpowering serves from Wawrinka rendered Nishikori’s typically top-notch return inconsequential. Off the ground, Wawrinka not only struck his beautiful backhand with immense force, but he was also opening the court by producing highly acute angles. His off-forehand was equally as effective leaving the nearly helpless No. 5 seed with no answers. All in all, Wawrinka hit a staggering 46 winners in three sets.
With all of this in mind, the one thing that needs to be asked here is this: what could Nishikori have done to knock Wawrinka from his perch yesterday? Was there anything he could have done to at least reduce Wawrinka’s level of play from its extraordinary high level? To break through on the game’s biggest stages, Wawrinka is the kind of opponent Nishikori will have to challenge, if not beat, every time they meet at a major tournament.
Here are a few possible things Nishikori could have tried:
1. Carefully vary direction off the backhand
Many watching the match live were calling for Nishikori to stop playing backhand-to-backhand cross-court rallies with Wawrinka. It seems like simple advice — Wawrinka has the best one-handed backhand in the world; thus, it’s an ostensibly logical tactic to keep the ball away from it.
Unfortunately for the fast-rising Japanese star, this is easier said than done. With the amount of pace Wawrinka was obtaining on his cross-court backhand, it would have been very dangerous for Kei to attempt to redirect the ball up the line. He definitely missed opportunities to go up the line on less vicious Wawrinka backhands, but it wasn’t as an egregious of a mistake as it appeared to be on the surface.
2. Give Wawrinka’s own backhand different looks
Midway through the match, it was apparent that Nishikori was trying to keep the ball to Wawrinka’s backhand. From No. 1, it’s clear that this strategy will always be a tough one to win with, but it would have become more effective had Nishikori been able to vary the ball he was sending to Wawrinka’s backhand.
Varying the spin, pace, and height of his shots would have made it more challenging for Wawrinka to enter and remain in that aggressive, attacking zone. With Nishikori’s backhand one of the best in the game (certainly one of the best two-handers), this has to be a tactic he needs to employ in every big match he plays.
3. Avoid approaching to Wawrinka’s backhand
Nishikori can go to Wawrinka’s backhand in neutral or defensive positions, but even when he has a short, attackable ball, it becomes incredibly problematic to approach to Wawrinka’s backhand, particularly cross-court.
The US Open finalist did this multiple times and really paid the price.
It’s hard to say that Nishikori would have been able to alter the outcome of the match even if he did change some of these things; Wawrinka was playing that well.
For the most part, it was one of those days where Nishikori has to tip his hat to Wawrinka and say, “too good.”