Greater things ahead
Nishikori is making history in Japan -- next, the world
Posted: Friday February 22, 2008 11:27AM; Updated: Friday February 22, 2008 11:45AM
The 2008 ATP season is young, but we've already seen the birth of two future champions. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga emerged Down Under, and last week, 244th-ranked Kei Nishikori ignited his home nation of Japan with his stunning victory in Delray Beach, Fla.
An accomplishment of that magnitude hasn't occurred since Shuzo Matsuoka won an ATP event in Seoul, South Korea, in 1992. That's the last time a Japanese male won a tournament.
Nishikori's success in Florida is no aberration -- there's enormous success in his future. The teenager possesses a unique combination of precision, power and athleticism, and he demonstrated it all while compiling eight straight wins in Delray Beach (three in qualifying and five in the main draw), culminating with a stunning upset of James Blake in the final.
I see a lot of Serb star Novak Djokovic in Nishikori's game. Both put tremendous pressure on opponents with their ability to defend the court and turn defensive situations into offensive ones. They're consistent and explosive off either wing and their court positioning and tennis IQs are off the charts.
Similar to how Djokovic's latest breakthrough came as a result of a beefed-up serve, Nishikori's assent may be governed by the same advantage. And that will happen gradually as he continues to develop physically. He's only 18!
Nishikori also has some similarities to Maria Sharapova. Even though he hails from a foreign land, he has relied on the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to hone his skills and on IMG to represent him, just like the Russian star. Kei has lived at the academy for four years and his development is being carefully monitored by Bollettieri, Gabe Jaramillo, Red Ayme and his traveling coach and former ATP pro, Glenn Weiner.
The fact that he can play against fellow academy players like Tommy Haas, Andy Murray, Radek Stepanek, Xavier Malisse and Max Mirnyi can only expedite his learning curve.
Nishikori is being fast-tracked by agent Olivier van Lindonk, who recruited Kei with a vision called "Project 45." What exactly does that mean? Well, it refers to the last major Japanese success on the ATP Tour. During his 13-year career, Matsuoka became a cult hero in Japan and reached a career-high ranking of No. 46 in '92. Van Lindonk's logic is that Nishikori's target should be to surpass that ranking, after which the marketing opportunities would be substantial.
Kei looks like he's on his way. He has already signed lucrative contracts with Adidas and Wilson and van Lindonk says he has "been up until 3 a.m. every morning since his win dealing with the hundreds of media requests and marketing opportunities. Our objective is to build a platform to lift the entire game of tennis in Japan."
I have no doubt he can and will. Nishikori's game translates on all surfaces, and he relishes the opportunity to play on the clay at Roland Garros. "Everyone tells me my jumping forehand looks like Marcelo Ríos," he says. "I like playing on clay, so I'm looking forward to April."
Nishikori has a refreshing combination of humility and self-confidence: "[Matsuoka] has been the only top-50 player from Japan and I really respect him so much," Nishikori says. "I have also gotten to practice with Roger Federer and, should he call me to offer his congratulations, I'll tell him, 'I'll beat you in the next couple of years!'"
The next major goal for Nishikori will be to break into the top 100 in the world, which would gain him automatic entry into the Grand Slams (he moved up to No. 131 after his victory in Delray Beach). He'll have a great chance of doing just that during his next stretch of events, which will include San Jose, Memphis, the Tennis Channel Open in Las Vegas, Indian Wells and Miami.
His poise under pressure might be his greatest weapon and it hasn't gone unnoticed, even to his current competitors.
"He played really well and didn't show any kind of nerves," says Blake of his surprising encounter in the Delray Beach final. "He hit cold winners at times you wouldn't expect it. He's going to win a lot of tournaments -- unfortunately he won his first against me!"
Former ATP pro Justin Gimelstob writes on alternate Fridays for SI.com.