Summer is tennis season. It is when the biggest of the four grand slam major tournaments is on, Wimbledon, and the best of the best tennis players in the world face off against each other. Singles matches are essentially mano-a-mano slugfests akin to boxing, MMA, and other combat sports. It’s what makes singles tennis truly unique in that it is the rare sport that sets up a duel between two individuals and pits their willpower and tenacity against one another to see who comes out on top, without the fisticuffs.
Kei Nishikori is the best Japanese tennis player and he is currently ranked 9th in the world ATP rankings, the first ever Japanese mens tennis player to reach those heights. To get that ranking, he did in style, with his signature ‘Air-K’ shot. What’s an ‘Air-K’? It’s when Nishikori sees a bounce that goes between smash range and forehand range, jumps TOWARDS the ball, and unloads a hellacious forehand.
So what’s so special about this shot? To put it in perspective, when you play tennis, the ideal weapons of choice are going to be your forehand or your overhead smash. The forehand’s sweet spot is when the ball bounces up to your knee level so that you are in the optimal position to throw that uppercut of a forehand and blast a return. Even better is if the ball is above your head, in which case your overhead smash is the equivalent of your knockout punch that puts all of your heart and soul into an unreturnable shot and almost guarantees that you win that point.
Unfortunately, players like Nadal have mastered the forehand top spin. A forehand with a lot of top spin is going to put the ball in to the uncomfortable range of in between your forehand and overhead smash. In other words, the ball is in a place where you cannot use your best weapons and if you return the ball haphazardly, you are going to get hit with a counter.
Nishikori’s Air-K shot is absolutely ingenious. When the ball goes in to that no-mans land, Nishikori launches himself up to put the ball in to his forehand range, which is his best weapon. Not only that, his wrist control is good enough to hit the ball in different angles so it makes this move a very hard read for the opponent as he is trying to guess where the ball is going towards. This is fascinating, because as tennis players, we are taught conventionally that when the ball goes to no-mans land, you have to either run towards the shot before it gets there or retreat back until it goes back down to optimal range. Neither option is ideal as running towards a top-spin shot is extremely difficult to adjust your shot and running back will allow for your opponent to establish their position and setup a powerful counter.
The Air-K shot eliminates both of these weaknesses. Not only that, but it artistically looks like a slam dunk in basketball. There is hang time, a momentary pause where the tension mounts, and then finally an explosion. It is too bad that he did not qualify for Wimbledon this year, but he will definitely be ready for the next grand slam major, the US Open.
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