Paris - Kei Nishikori stood on the brink of history after
sweeping into the 2014 US Open final, but three years later he is no closer to
becoming the first Asian man to win a Grand Slam singles title.
The Japanese star was ruthlessly defeated in straight sets
by Marin Cilic in New York to prevent him from emulating Chinese icon Li Na,
who conquered Roland Garros in 2011 and the 2014 Australian Open before
signalling her retirement.
Nishikori's run to the 2015 quarter-final at the French Open
remains his best showing in Paris, and a turbulent clay-court season for the
world number nine has tempered expectations ahead of the year's second major.
A wrist injury forced Nishikori to withdraw from Barcelona -
where he won in 2014 and 2015 - before the problem resurfaced ahead of a
quarter-final showdown with Novak Djokovic at the Madrid Masters.
An early loss in Rome, albeit to the mercurial talents of
Juan Martin del Potro, hardly reinforced his confidence.
But Nishikori, whose coaching team includes 1989 French Open
champion Michael Chang, remains a firm believer in his ability to compete with
the best on clay.
"Clay suits my tennis. I can use many different
shots," said Nishikori, ahead of a final Roland Garros tune-up in Geneva.
"I used to really like clay when I was a junior, but
when I turned pro I kind of knew how tough it was to play on clay with the top
"But now I have more confidence playing on clay and I
think I can play really good on clay with my tennis. I really like to play on
this surface now.
"(Chang)" is giving me a lot of good tips on the
clay court... For sure it's getting better. I think every year I have better
Nine of his 11 career titles have come on hard courts, but
Nishikori hopes a deep run in Geneva can spark a revival in fortunes.
"It's great to have some matches (in Geneva). Hopefully
I can win the tournament. I think it's important to play well this week and get
some confidence for next week.
"Even if I don't win, I'll try to have a good couple of
matches here and get ready for next week," he said.
Nishikori has little competition as Asia's standout player,
with compatriots Yoshihito Nishioka (69th) and Yuichi Sugita (77th), as well as
South Korea's Hyeon Chung (68th) the only other players from the continent
inside the top 100.
Li's retirement in 2014 left a cavernous void in the women's
game, and China has been waiting for her successor to step forward ever since.
Peng Shuai battered her way into the last four of that
year's US Open, while Zhang Shuai fought through qualifying to make the 2016
Australian Open quarter-finals.
But those performances are very much outliers, with Zhang,
the world number 34, currently the highest-ranked Asian woman.
However with Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova absent, and
both world number one Angelique Kerber reigning Roland Garros champion Garbine
Muguruza struggling for form, the conditions are as ripe as ever for an