Japan’s Nishikori the slight favourite for US Open final
Croatia’s Cilic seems to have banished cloud that hung over him after drugs ban
Kei Nishikori of Japan returns a shot against Novak Djokovic of Serbia during their men’s singles semi-final at the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, New York City. Photograph: Mike Stobe/Getty Images
There is no obvious tennis reason for Michael Chang to be advising Kei Nishikori, apart from their sharing winged feet, but helping him to the US Open final makes a strong case for the former world No2 and famed baseline defender to be made coach of the year.
Certainly, if Nishikori beats Marin Cilic today - after first doubting he would play at all, then getting rid of Milos Raonic, Stanislas Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic in 14 tough sets - there will be no argument that Chang has returned to the coaching scene like a New York storm.
Nishikori, with speed not dissimilar to that with which Chang terrorised the Tour in the 80s and 90s, has played some remarkable tennis over the past fortnight, none better than when seeing off the world No1 in four sets in the first semi-final on Saturday. So emphatically did the 24-year-old do the job that Cilic’s upset of Federer a few hours later seemed like an addendum to a wider narrative.
Whether the story continues thus we will learn over the course of the next year or so but for now this title is going to have a first-time major champion, whatever the result - and the feeling is that there will be more jubilation afterwards in Japan than Croatia. Chang - who coached Jose Higueras briefly in the 80s, then his own brother, Carl, for a year - has watched Nishikori mature at a rapid rate this year and puts it down to a rather prosaic reason: fitness.
The latest worry was a cyst on his right foot which required surgery last month - not long after his hip gave up on him when he was all over Rafael Nadal in the Madrid Masters and had to quit in the third set.
“The cyst wasn’t an injury,” Chang said. “There was nothing to rehab, it just had to heal. I told him to keep up with his physical stuff and, although he may not have had the amount of matches he wanted coming into the Open, we will go early, work on the timing and once you get through the first two matches anything can happen. I gave him examples of myself, Pete Sampras where we weren’t quite sure if we were going to play; Pete got to the finals in Australia one year, I almost got the final of the French in ‘95 and was very close to pulling out of the tournament before it started.”
So that is the tennis pedigree Chang brings to the party - more successful in terms of results than Stefan Edberg’s association with Federer (although reaching the Wimbledon final this year was a considerable achievement), Amelie Mauresmo’s still-young partnership with Andy Murray and on a par with Boris Becker, who was there for Djokovic at Wimbledon - and, of course, on Arthur Ashe Court on Saturday.
But does it stand up that Chang, born in the Hoboken, New Jersey, of Chinese parents, and Nishikori, a proud, life-time citizen of Japan, latterly with a residence in Florida, should have chemistry that works?
Empathy means a lot in life, not just sport. Chang and Nishikori seem to have it, whatever their roots - and, if it survives the pressures of high-grade elite tennis, this may indeed be the start of a new era.
Cilic will play his part in this intriguing piece of theatre. He seems to have banished the cloud that hung over him after his drugs ban and he won many new admirers with his free-hitting tennis against Federer. But he will start as a slight underdog - and without even a single journalist from his homeland to chronicle his efforts. Times are tough in Croatia.