A year ago, Kei Nishikori arrived at Roland Garros for the French Open coming off an injury and, having just broken into the top 10, feeling the pressure of being among the world’s best players.
His stay lasted all of one day.
This year, Nishikori is brimming with confidence as he aims for his first Grand Slam title as the No. 5 seed, the same as his current ATP ranking.
Nishikori has proved his adeptness on clay court this spring by successfully defending his title at the Barcelona Open in April and putting in strong showings on the surface leading up to the French Open, which begins Sunday.
“For the first time, I have no worries [coming into the French Open] from a physical standpoint,” a relaxed Nishikori said at a press conference Friday. “I have confidence, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Nishikori will open his campaign by facing France’s 123rd-ranked Paul-Henri Mathieu in the first round Sunday. The two practiced together for about an hour on Thursday.
“He has strong groundstrokes,” Nishikori said of the 33-year-old Frenchman. “He’s a dangerous opponent, and I can lose to him if I let down my guard.”
At this time last year, Nishikori became a top-10 player, which he admits brought undue pressure. “It made me so nervous,” he said.
However, by the autumn he was in the top 5, and never suffered a big drop in ranking. “Even though I wasn’t consciously thinking about my rank, it started to become natural for me to think, ‘this is my position now.’”
Asked about the gap between him and the Big 4 led by world No. 1 Novak Djokavic, Nishikori replied, “[The gap] is big, but the difference in staying focused is small. I think I’m getting closer [to the four]. I think it’s good to try to aim for the top one step at a time.”