WASHINGTON (AFP) - Japan's Kei Nishikori has new confidence against the top stars in tennis, thanks to some success on the court and in his work with coach Michael Chang.
Nishikori, enjoying his best ATP season with a repeat title at Memphis and win on Barcelona clay, begins his push toward the US Open this week as the fourth seed at the Washington Open.
"There's still a big difference in the top five or so. They don't miss easy shots and don't give you easy points to win a game," Nishikori said on Tuesday.
"For me, I don't feel any fear to play them any more after beating them a couple times.
"I have more confidence now to play the top guys." The 24-year-old Japanese star is 2-2 against 17-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer, including a win in this year's Miami quarter-finals, and 1-1 against top-ranked Novak Djokovic, whom he did not play in a Miami semi-final due to a left groin injury.
And while Nishikori is winless in seven matches against second-ranked Rafael Nadal, he pushed Nadal to three sets in the final on Madrid clay before a back injury forced him to retire.
After losing to Milos Raonic in the fourth round at Wimbledon, Nishikori has rested and put the nagging injuries of a 32-8 season behind him.
"I feel very strong. Physically I'm OK," he said. "I had a great two weeks of training. Everything is ready for the US Open." Nishikori, who opens his bid for a sixth ATP title Wednesday against American Sam Querrey, sees his game improving the longer he works with Chang.
"We changed a couple of things and my tennis is improving," Nishikori said.
"My serve is getting better, more strong and more high percentage and also groundstrokes, I'm a little more aggressive than before. It's a little of everything. I need to work on a couple more things to get better.
"I'll try to use more forehand, try to step in more, look to go to the net. We work on a lot of stuff. I'm stronger on the court."
- Nishikori eyes big step -
At 11th in the world, Nishikori is down from the career-best ninth he reached in May but looking for more as the Flushing Meadows fortnight approaches.
"I'm happy to be in this ranking situation (but) my goal is not the top 10. Trying to go further," he said.
"The US Open is coming up. If I could get quarter-finals, semi-finals, that would be great." Nishikori's only run to the last eight in a Grand Slam event was at the 2012 Australian Open quarter-finals. He was the first Japanese man in 80 years to advance so far at Melbourne before losing to Britain's Andy Murray.
"I hope I can make another big step," Nishikori said. "Clay court season was a little bit of a surprise for me. Usually all the Spanish win in Barcelona and I got the title there. Last year I didn't do well in these months so it's a very important few months for me." Nishikori, ousted in the US Open's first round last year, would match his best US Open showing with a run to the last 16.