Many of the world’s top tennis players are set to invade Japan this September to take part in the Rakuten Japan Open, yet the focus of the home crowd is once again likely to be on one man – 23-year-old Kei Nishikori.
by Matthew Hernon
Nishikori is one of a growing number of emerging talents in the country who enjoys rock star status.
Despite a disappointing show at the US Open, expectations will be high as the boy from Shimane attempts to retain the crown he won at the Ariake Colosseum last year.
Joining an illustrious list of previous winners that includes the likes of Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, Nishikori became the first ever Japanese player to lift the trophy in 2012.
Repeating that feat is not going to be easy. 2011 winner and current Wimbledon champion, Andy Murray, will be in attendance, as will other top ten ranked players such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Milos Raonic. Nishikori, currently ranked 12 in the world, is more concerned about his own game.
“I am not really worried about anyone in particular,” he tells Weekender. “It is more important to concentrate on what I can do, not the opposition. Of course I believe I can win it. Last year’s victory was truly special, my greatest memory in tennis to date, and I will do everything in my power to try and experience that feeling again.”
“I do believe I can become a better player, but just saying it isn’t enough, I need to work hard and show it with performances on the court. To get to that elite level I really need to improve both my physical and mental toughness.”
A good showing in Tokyo would go some way to making up for his first round straight-sets defeat to rank outsider Dan Evans at the US Open. His ultimate goal, though, is to become a more consistent player at the Majors.
He has shown promise – in 2012 he became the first Japanese player to reach the last eight at the Australian Open and this year he became the first for 75 years to make the Fourth Round of the French, where he was beaten by Rafael Nadal.
The Spaniard, who claimed an incredible eighth Roland Garros in nine years, was complimentary of Nishikori’s game, stating in the press conference after the match that the Japanese player was “a candidate to be top ten without any doubt,” though he still seems to be a long way from seriously challenging for a Grand Slam title.
Whilst he has become known for his speed and nimble footwork, his lack of penetrating power when playing groundstrokes means he often comes up short when taking on the big boys.
“I have confidence in my ability,” Nishikori says. “I do believe I can become a better player, but just saying it isn’t enough, I need to work hard and show it with performances on the court. In order to get to that elite level I really need to improve both my physical and mental toughness.”
At just 23 Nishikori has time on his side. It can be easy to forget how far he has come in such a short space of time. He arrived at the renowned Bollettieri Academy in the US as a shy 13-year-old who couldn’t speak any English.
Fast forward ten years and we are talking about the best player in Asia, number 12 in the world, and someone who has beaten Novak Djokovic as well as his hero Roger Federer.
He is now a major star in his own right, with sponsors lining up to sign him: he currently has deals with Uniqlo, Wilson, Tag Heuer and Adidas to name but a few. According to Forbes he has pocketed $10.5 million in the past year (from June 2012 to June 2013) with around $9 million of that coming from off-court earnings, an astonishing amount for a player outside the top ten.
It is hard to imagine what that figure would be like if he were to win or even seriously challenge for a Grand Slam. It remains to be seen whether that day will ever come, in the meantime he could do with a few more ATP victories to boost both his confidence and ranking, starting with the Rakuten Japan Open at the end of September.
The Rakuten Japan Open runs from Sep 30 to Oct 6. For more info and tickets see en.rakutenopen.com
Main Image: Kei Nishikori (courtesy of Uniqlo)