When you talk tennis and star power in Japan you’re talking Kei Nishikori.
The 22-year-old who hails from Shimane, Japan, but has lived and trained at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Florida since he was 14, owns a bevy of tennis records in his country.
But he’s not all that focused on being the best Japanese player in the game.
“Honestly, not so much,” Nishikori said, when asked if his achievements resonate with him. “I never think about it. I just try to do my best and win each match.”
Here’s a roundup of why Nishikori currently has the keys to tennis in Japan.
Once Nishikori ranked better than No. 45 in the world, last October -- he reached No. 30 at that time -- he became the highest ranked Japanese male player in history, eclipsing Shuzo Matsuoka, who in his day weighed in at No. 46. When Nishikori first arrived at Bollettieri’s everybody started to refer to him as “Project 45. To date, he’s reached a career high No. 24 (November 2011) and is currently No. 26.
Not impressive enough, here’s more about this year’s Australian Open 24th seed.
Nishikori’s 4-6, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4), 6-3 win over Frenchman Julien Benneteau on Saturday makes him the first Japanese man to journey to an Australian Open round-of-16. Last year, he was the first Japanese man to reach the Australian Open third round since the 128-player draw was introduced in 1982.
This marks Nishikori’s second trip to a Grand Slam fourth round. His first was at the 2008 U.S. Open where he lost to Juan Martin del Potro. And, of course, that achievement came with a Japanese first distinction, too, as he was the first Japanese man to reach the round-of-16 at the U.S. Open in the Open Era. In fact, he’s the first Japanese man to reach the U.S. round-of-16 since 1937. And no, I won’t leave you hanging as to who did it in 1937 -- it was not one Japanese player, but two, with Fumiteru Nakano and Jiro Yamagishi waving the Japanese flag in the year that J. Donald Budge of the U.S. won the title.
Thus far, Nishikori has one title to his credit at the 2008 Delray Beach tournament. He arrived at the Florida beach town event as an unknown and had to earn his spot in the main draw by going through the qualifying rounds. Despite having lived in the United States for four years he was shy and not that versatile in speaking English. But he was versatile with using his racket well at only his sixth ATP-level main draw appearance, which top seed James Blake found out when the teen shocked him 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 in the final.
Naturally, there’s a record attached to his first title as well. He became the first Japanese man to win a title in 16 years. Matsuoka had been the last when he took home the 1992 Seoul trophy.
While Nishikori has all these firsts to be proud of, everything hasn’t always gone that smoothly in his still very young career. He’s been plagued by a series of injuries or illnesses that has at times stymied his ability to keep improving at a steady pace.
His first problem reared after his impressive U.S. Open debut in 2008 when he sustained an elbow injury, which kept him off the court for nearly all of the 2009 season. He went home to Japan to rest and it was eventually decided that surgery was the best course of action, so he underwent the knife in August 2009.
In 2011, he was stricken with kidney stones and ended up in the hospital, which forced him to withdraw from the Rome tournament. And later in the year, a lower back injury caused him to retire in the first round of the 2011 U.S. Open.
Now, hoping to remain healthy and healed, Nishikori can look forward to other records he can set for Japan.
For starters, he’s in position to add another achievement to his list if he can beat sixth seed Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in the round-of-16 on Sunday. That’s when he would become the first Japanese man to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal since Matsuoka did so at Wimbledon in 1995.
“You know, he's really aggressive,” said Nishikori, of Tsonga, who beat him in three sets in their one meeting at last year’s Shanghai tournament. “He has great serve. He comes to the net a lot. But, yeah, I'm excited to get through here (to the) round-of-16.”