Brisbane Final Preview Kei Nishikori Versus Grigor Dimitrov

Nishikori Dimitrov

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The Tennis Review previews the Brisbane Open final between Kei Nishikori (3) and Grigor Dimitrov (7) and asks if this is the match that will send Dimitrov back into the ATP’s winning circle.

Back at the end of 2014,when Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov were making the business ends of slams, breaking into the top ten and winning ATP 500 titles, matches between two of the then touted ATP Young Guns looked like they would become a regular event.

Since then, injuries, mental toughness issues, and the distractions of being twenty-something millionaire pro athletes have taken their toll and they have met just once, in the Canadian Open last season, a match which Nishikori won in three sets, giving the Japanese a head to head lead of 3-0. All three of those wins have come on Outdoor Hard, and this match, played on the Outdoor Hard courts of Brisbane, will be their first final.

Both players beat higher seeded opponents to reach the final, and both won in straight sets, Nishikori beating Stan Wawrinka and Dimitrov putting out defending champion Milos Raonic.

This final, then, looks like a surprise- the start of the season tends to spring them with some players improving weaker parts of their games or adding new touches- but it’s only a shocker on paper with both men evenly matched with their semi-final opponents. Nishikori was 3-4 versus Wawrinka and had won their last match at the ATP WTF, and Dimitrov had a 2-1 lead over Raonic (their last match was three years ago, but that head to head still suggests Dimitrov, on his day, has a little too much all court variety and baseline guile for Raonic).

One thing that is a  genuine surprise for men’s tennis, and a pleasant one, is the recent resurgence of Dimitrov, a player who has the attractive game, personality, and looks to draw a lot of fans to the game, and retain those impatient for the next generation of talent to rise to the top.

The Bulgarian seemed to be suffering from the ” Baby Federer” curse, but has been showing signs of improvement since the second half of 2016, rising from No.40 at the end of July 2016 to his current ranking of 17.

That shift of momentum, and subsequent confidence, in his favor presents Dimitrov with a good opportunity to win his first title since Queens 2014, and with three finals on his resume in 2016 (Sydney, Istanbul, Beijing), he has plenty of recent experience of playing for titles to draw upon if things versus Nishikori get tense.

The Big Question is can he turn around not only his luck in finals, but also his head to head versus his Japanese rival?

Nishikori has a lot going for him when it comes to playing all court players like Dimitrov, (and Wawrinka) on medium speed hard courts. The Japanese has the powerful baseline skills to keep them pinned back where he wants them, and the superior overall quality groundstrokes to get the better of them on big points. He can also put a lot of pressure on them on the return, while their own return games, often a weaker part of their games, do not allow them to take advantage of Nishikori’s vulnerable second serves.

Those factors, and the mental advantage Nishikori has over Dimitrov, including the head to head lead and his greater experience in big matches, mean the match is very much in the hands of the Japanese.

Nishikori will not, however, face many players with quite the talented tennis hands Dimitrov possesses. Dimitrov will, needless to say, have to play a great match to win the final, but, luckily for the Bulgarian, he has it in him- his service, his attacking game and his variety of shots have the potential to, if they are all clicking, put him into a winning position against the Japanese, a player who can get edgy in big moments.

The final of an ATP 250 event is far from the biggest moment Nishikori has faced- he has been in a slam final, ATP 1000 finals, ATP 500 finals, Slam semis-and he usually handles being the favorite in a final very well. That means the Japanese should come out feeling good and playing his fine brand of baseline attack, but he will not have faced many underdogs with the hard court movement and defensive game of Dimitrov, skills the Bulgarian can use to keep the pressure on Nishikori in his confident periods, and if Dimitrov can apply the pressure for long enough and make Nishikori doubt himself, the Japanese might start overhitting and help Dimitrov in his quest to earn another trophy.

The Bulgarian has to be careful, though and only go on the defense when he needs to and not when he gets nervous, lacks confidence, or starts feeling the pressure.

That’s what this, like all finals, comes down to- who handles the pressure better, an issue both Dimitrov and Nishikori have struggled with in different ways and at different levels of the game since their breakout 2014 seasons. Dimitrov, from late 2014 through to mid 2016, could not handle it at all, from the early stages of ATP tournaments across the board, and Nishikori has coped with it better in the bigger events only to fall apart facing the best players in big matches.

Right now, it is Dimitrov who seems to be breaking through the better of the two in the area where he has been mentally struggling the most, and with momentum, confidence, form, and the quicker speed of the Brisbane hard courts all on Dimitrov’s side, the Brisbane final versus Nishikori might be the match that gets him back into the place where many think, and which he seems to now believe, he belongs- men’s tennis’ winning circle, one he has the talent and the work ethic to help nicely spin along.

Prediction: Dimitrov to score his first win over Nishikori, in straight sets.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.

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