ELIGIBLE to participate in the 2021 ATP Cup courtesy of Kei Nishikori‘s protected ranking, Japan enters the tournament as clear underdogs alongside Greece. The Asian nation might not have the elite talent Greece has in Stefanos Tsitsipas, but the overall team is better rounded and might yield more consistent results.
Former world number four, Nishikori is now all the way out in 41st after injuries wrecked the end of his 2019 season and impacted his 2020 year. He played just six ATP Tour matches – winning two – and almost went 12 months without playing a match. Since the US Open in 2019, he returned in Kitzbuhel in September last year, only to lose to Miomir Kecmanovic in three sets on debut. He had a good win over Albert Ramos-Vinolas in Rome the next week, but fell to teenage talent Lorenzo Musetti. From there, he won just the one more match – against Daniel Evans – and played his final game of the year at Roland Garros, losing in five sets to Stefano Travaglia.
Nishikori is clearly a top talent when fit and firing, but having lacked match practice, he might struggle against a lot of the top players. He cannot be underestimated, but a number of the sides’ second players have since gone past him, and it is difficult seeing Japan pick up too many wins. Yoshihito Nishioka is gradually moving up the rankings, in at number 57 in the world, and he reached a career-high of 48th last year.
His sole tournament success came at Shenzhen back in 2018, so he is relatively capped in his ability, though last year he managed to record wins over Top 50 players, Pablo Cuevas, Nikoloz Basilashvili, Laslo Djere and Daniel Evans in the first month. Nishioka also made it all the way to the Delray Beach final before going down to Reilly Opelka in a three-set match. A forgettable mid-2020 was somewhat made up for with a strong finish to the year, but with a 14-12 record, he is one who will likely split his second singles matches.
The doubles combination has some potential with 28-year-old New Zealand-born Ben McLachlan teaming up with Toshihide Matsui. Whilst not familiar as a pairing on the regular ATP Tour, McLachlan is ranked inside the Top 50 for the format, playing a massive 38 tournaments. Matsui is 42-year-old and easily the oldest player in the ATP Cup. Pairing up with McLachlan at the same event last year, they won against Uruguay but lost against the much lower ranked Georgian pairing. He has also not played for 12 months which makes it difficult to predict.
Japan are underdogs for a reason and it would be a surprise to see them advance past the group stage, but miracles can happen.
Picture credit: Zimbio