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Nishikori leading candidate to foil Nadal, Djokovic French Open hopes

11m - Tennis
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Murray hoping to improve clay game in Munich

Andy Murray will be hoping for an improvement in his clay court form as he begins his build-up to the French Open.

Anyone already salivating over the prospect of an imperious Novak Djokovic facing off against a wounded warrior Rafael Nadal at the French Open might want to wipe his chin and neatly fold his hands in his lap for the next few weeks.

Much can happen between now and that much-longed-for meeting of clay-court titans in early June, as Kei Nishikori reminded us Sunday in the Barcelona final. Nishikori won it with a workmanlike 90-minute 6-4, 6-4 demolition of Spain's Pablo Andujar. Nishikori thereby retained the title he claimed in 2014 -- further proof that he handles pressure better than anyone else outside the Big Four.

Spanish players had won the Barcelona title for 11 consecutive years before Nishikori broke the hex in 2014. This year, the draw featured 14 Spanish heroes, led by No. 2 seed Nadal. The very idea that Nadal would be seeded No. 2 in a clay-court event in Europe is already the makings of an episode of The Twilight Zone. But it's not as surreal as the idea that the staid tournament held at the Real Club de Tenis Barcelona could be dominated for two years running by a 25-year-old Japanese kid who grew up playing on hard courts in Bradenton, Florida.

Those biographical details are relevant, because in addition to the usual "firsts" associated with Nishikori (you know, first Asian to accomplish this, first Japanese to do that), the one most likely to truly trouble his rivals is his game. He's also the first anyone from anywhere to make it appear that learning the game on hard courts can be of greater worth than a red-dirt pedigree when it comes to winning on clay.

The reason for that is simple: training on hard courts (at least in this era when fast hard courts have been deemed as passé as the wooden racket), puts a greater emphasis on opportunism and net play. No hard-court bred player who's enjoyed success on red clay makes this case as clearly and convincingly as Nishikori.

On red clay, the romance of grinding (which is really the sadistic appeal of pounding away at an opponent and walking away four hours later the winner) still holds most practitioners in its sway. What we saw in Barcelona is that, Nadal notwithstanding, there may be a better way. Nishikori is an exquisitely balanced player. His shots may not be designed to get him moving in as quickly and efficiently as possible, but it's certainly a pleasant -- and deadly - side effect of those purposeful strokes. His quick hands and compact strokes are useful tools when he has to work in the forecourt, too. Just as important, Nishikori seems mentally comfortable going wherever his crisp, probing shots lead.

Nishikori doesn't appear to have any use for the kinds of cat-and-mouse games that some players pursue. In that sense, he's all business. Had Nishikori been weaned on clay, his shots might fly with a little more spin and a little less risk. They certainly would have made of Nishikori a serviceable clay-court player. Instead, he's had to settle for being No. 5 in the world and a US Open finalist, not to mention his 25-5 record on the year with two titles -- two more than Murray, one more than Nadal and dead even with Roger Federer.

To Nishikori's credit, nobody is calling him "a little beast." He's not the "king" of anything. You don't watch him and get the sense that he loves to suffer or that tennis is the outlet for his drama gene. He clearly likes to go to work and get the job done, as efficiently and practically as possible, with as little fanfare as possible. Some guys, give them their power tools and they're happy.

Nishikori was self-effacing after the final. Striving to be objective, he said, "I tried to be aggressive, and that's why I think I won the important points, but I'd say [Andujar] played better than me."

Andujar agreed with Nishikori's assessment of the match: "I played better in the second set, and I felt I deserved something more. ... I believe I could have won, but here we are."

Those words ought to be enough to send a shiver down any fellow player's spine. I can think of two guys in particular.