Looking at Marin Cilic (top photo) and Kei Nishikori (bottom photo), which one would you pick in tomorrow’s US Open tennis final? Cilic is six feet, six inches tall and has a serve not seen since Goran Ivanisevic, his new coach. Nishikori is eight inches shorter and not nearly as athletic-looking as Cilic. But don’t be too quick to count him out.
I pick Nishikori to win it all.
Nishikori has something I don’t think Cilic has. Something that Canada’s Milos Raonic – another imposing looking athlete with a massive serve – evidently does not have.
Gaël Monfils showed a disappointing lack of it against Roger Federer. Perhaps the most gifted athlete in the tournament, Monfils lost his will the moment Federer showed some fight.
It’s called Yamato Damashii in Nishikori’s home country of Japan. Roughly translated, it means the Japanese spirit.
But I have seen it in several people who were not Japanese.
My brother Bill, for example, had polio in both legs – one after the other – as a toddler. Yet he became Junior Welterweight Champion of the British Army of the Rhine. Bill has Yamato Damashii.
The 1973 New York Mets had Yamato Damashii. Remember that improbable World Series Championship? They believed they could win and they had the will to win. So they won.
Here’s another example of Yamato Damashii. Back in the early Fifties, a boxer named Randy Turpin (did you know his parents were from Jamaica?) upset Sugar Ray Robinson, knocking him cold in a London bout. In the New York rematch, Turpin almost did it again, when Sugar Ray was so badly cut it looked as if he might have to call it quits. But Sugar Ray refused to lose, and knocked out Turpin to regain the championship.
Sugar Ray had Yamato Damashii.
And it’s the intangible something that sets Nishikori apart. Against superstar Novak Djokovic, Nishikori showed how Yamato Damashii can overcome mere physical dominance. Djokovic is notoriously athletic, fine tuning his body with the most rigorous regimen imaginable. Djokovic has all the shots, all the moves. He is number one in the world and was seeded umber one in the tournament.
Nishikori had been through a series of grueling five-setters, forcing his delicate-looking frame to exceed its physical limits as he faced one bigger, stronger athlete after another. He should have been dead on his feet. But, in the tradition of the samurai, he dug deep, finding something beyond physical strength, beyond athletic ability, beyond mere muscle and brawn.
In Japan, it’s called Yamato Damashii. In America, it’s been called “the Right Stuff.”
It’s celebrated in that song about the ant who moved a rubber tree plant. Remember?
I don’t see it today as often as I used to. And that’s a great pity.