The evening is mild, the pitch is pristine and the visiting forward sees only daylight between him and the goal. He is wrong. Behind him, quiet and quick, comes center defender Erik Palmer-Brown. The kid shoulders the evasive striker, slowing him down. His foot connects with the ball. Then comes the slide tackle that dislodges it definitively — and returns possession to the American all-star team.
That whole episode, in Denver last month, took 11 seconds; Palmer-Brown works fast.
How does one begin to measure toughness? It’s probably most akin to gauging or producing team chemistry, and about as tangible. Lucky for Kei Nishikori and his coach, American legend Michael Chang, both have seemed to arrive for them almost effortlessly, with favorable results nearly as rapidly.
Since naming Chang, the former world No. 2 and the 1989 French Open champion, to a support team that includes longtime coach Dante Bottini, Nishikori’s game and results have continued to grow. After turning pro in 2007, the top-ranked Japanese player slowly rose in the rankings up to a career-high No 11 for a handful of weeks in 2013, ending that season at No 17. But talk about impact. Since Chang began working with him, Nishikori, now 25, has won seven of his 10 ATP titles (including three this season), broken into the top five (he’s currently No. 4 in the world), and made it to his first grand slam final at last year’s U.S. Open.
On Saturday, after a tight semi-final victory in Washington DC, John Isner told the crowd that he’d need them out in full force the next day to win the title. They did their part on Sunday, showing up and providing him with backing in the championship match against world No5 Kei Nishikori, but it was not enough as the top-ranked American lost in a hard-fought three-setter, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.
In a match where Nishikori was only a little better than his opponent, the final outcome was never obvious until late in the match. That’s in part because it featured just three breaks of serve. The first was for Isner, but it was the latter two for Nishikori that were ultimately the difference.