By Mizuki Ogi
Only one Japanese player has beaten tennis stars like Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. At only 23, Kei Nishikori (錦織圭) has spent his short career breaking records in Japanese tennis history.
In July, Nishikori was competing in the Rogers Cup and the ATP World Cup in Montreal. In the second round of the Rogers Cup, he successfully avenged his loss against Seppi Andreas, who defeated him at Wimbledon earlier this year. But in the third round, he lost a close game against France’s Gasquet Richard who was the finalist this year. Nishikori got off to a good start, breaking three times in the first set, but he dropped the ball in the following two sets.
Nishikori was ranked 11th in career-high singles on June 17th this year (now 12th), which is not an easy feat for anyone in his league. Using powerful and accurate swings, he consistently aims for the sides of the court to make opponents run from side to side. Using his speed and agility, Nishikori was able to reach the top ten of the league.
“My goal is to keep that position for next several years so that I don’t care about the ranking so much now,” he said in a recent interview with CNN. “I try to enjoy this moment and this life — it is not going to be a long time, 10 to 20 years, so I’m going to work hard.”
And he’s been working hard his whole life to achieve what he has.
Nishikori started to play at the age of five when he received a tennis racket from his father. He practiced with his father and sister in a nearby park, and after he began to take lessons people started to recognize his talent as a tennis player.
Nishikori joined “Shuzo challenge”, a training camp for top junior tennis players, when he was 11 years old. Shuzo Matsuoka, the first Japanese player to win the ATP Tour, is a pioneer for tennis players in Japan.
Shuzo was always tough to him and never cut corners. It was obvious that he could not beat Shuzo when they played against one another in the camp. However, after his defeat at Shuzo’s hand, he ran up to the legendary player and said weeping, “Please give me a chance to play with me again, Mr. Shuzo”. Shuzo was impressed by his attitude. Although he does not show his emotion a lot, it seems that his enthusiasm for tennis and strong fighting instinct has never changed since early childhood.
When he was in the sixth grade, Nishikori won three big titles in a row in the Japan Junior Tournament. These wins got him recognition and a chance to go to IMG Academy in the United States, supported by Morita fund, a scholarship created by the former CEO of Sony to advance Japanese tennis. The school has produced many famous players such as Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, and Maria Sharapova.
A shy boy, Nishikori faced many difficulties there. He was overwhelmed by other students who were much taller and bigger than him. They played pranks on him and scolded him for reasons he couldn’t understand. Even with those challenges, he continued to play tennis and never gave up on his daily eight hours practice. He hardly complained or whined even when he talked to his parents who live in Japan.
Three years after he moved to the United States, Nishikori won the 2006 Junior French Open doubles. It was the first big achievement in his career. A year later, he turned professional and, four months later, won his first ATP Tour Title in Delray Beach. He became the first Japanese male player in nearly 16 years to win an ATP event since Shuzo Matsuoka won for the first time.
Even though Nishikori has consistently suffered from injury – withdrawing from most of the cups in 2009 – he has steadily polished his skills. In January this year, he won his third career title in the U.S. National Indoor Championships. In addition to that, he left stable results to reach the fourth round at both Australian and French Open, moving up his ranking to 11th.
What was more exciting for Nishikori is definitely the victory against Roger Federer, 6-4, 1-6, 6-2, in the third round at the Madrid Masters in May. This was the second time he played Federer. The first time was in the final of the Swiss Indoors in Basel Swiss in 2011.
Nishikori, the world number 32 at that time, beat the world champion Novak Djokovic in the semi-final, 2-6, 7-6, 6-0. However, he was thrashed by Roger Federer, 6-1, 6-3. He fully realized how great professional top level players were. However, considering his recent activities, it is no exaggeration to say that he is now one of the top players in the world.
“It’s meaningless to reach top 10 once,” Nishikori said in a press conference after a tournament at Wimbledon earlier this year.
“I’m getting close, but I feel…I have a lot of things to work on more. I feel [it’s] still a long way to be top 10 but yeah, [it’s] something I’m trying to work on,” he said.
His next goal is to win at the Grand Slam tournament, which is also known as the majors, and to break into the top 10. His goal is close at hand, and his Japanese fans are very supportive of him.