Although Japan has four players at its Davis Cup first round tie against Canada in Vancouver, one particular visitor – world number four Kei Nishikori – looms crucial.
Japan goes as far as their best player will take them and he, more than anyone, stands in Canada’s way of a quarterfinal berth in the 2015 World Group.
“He’s been very successful this past year,” Canadian star Milos Raonic said of his Japanese counterpart who made it to the US Open final last season partially at his expense when the two met in the fourth round.
“He’s been using his strengths well, he is one of the fastest players on (ATP) tour. He makes sure he gets in position well, he stays close to the baseline, even though he might not hit the ball the hardest, he makes things happen quickly.”
That quickness has caused Raonic problems in the past. The Canadian is known for his booming serves and powerful aces, but Nishikori has a knack for unfathomable service returns.
The two players have never faced each other in the Davis Cup, but in ATP meetings Nishikori holds a 4-2 edge, beating Raonic twice in front of a home crowd in Tokyo. In their last meeting in Brisbane, Raonic came out on top. This weekend in Vancouver is expected to be the first time the two men will duel on a Canadian court, subject to Thursday’s draw. As of right now they’re likely to play each other on Sunday.
“For both of us we’ve had some of the most significant matches against each other,” Raonic told the gathered media on Tuesday at the University of British Columbia.
“It’ll sort of be the other way around, I’ve played him twice in Tokyo so getting to play him on home soil is something I look forward to. “
Go Soeda, Tatsuma Ito and Yasutaka Uchiyama round out the Japanese foursome. Should any of them be able to manage what would be considered an upset in singles or doubles against the Canadian contingent of Raonic, Vasek Pospisil, Daniel Nestor and Frank Dancevic – all Olympians – it may give Nishikori a chance to close out the best-of-five tie, a position Canada would want to avoid.
Davis Cup history has been tilted heavily in Japan’s favour in its Canadian encounters. Since 1923, the two nations have faced each other six times with the sun setting on Canada each time.
The latest tie was a 4-1 Japanese triumph in 2014, although Canada was without its two main weapons, Raonic and Pospisil.
Nishikori, 25, knows the importance the match against 24-year old Raonic has on his country’s chance at advancing to the quarterfinals. The Canadian is ranked sixth in the world and both men are in the next flight of superstars poised to rule men’s tennis for better part of the next decade.
“I think he has one of the best serves in the tour. He got much more aggressive, I think, he comes in (to the net) a lot and you feel the pressure when you play against him,” Nishikori said of Raonic.
“You always play long matches, it’s never easy to play against him, but I always enjoy playing against him because you know, he’s a great server and also pretty aggressive. It’s always fun to play against Milos.”
While the two players pay each other great compliments, the rivalry between them is evident on the court. They both hold the key to their country’s tennis fortunes heading into Friday’s first set of matches.