"He has a halo. He's definitely a player who can become the best in the world."
This is how Uniqlo founder Tadashi Yanai, who is rather fond of the term "best in the world," described Kei Nishikori, 22, at a press conference on Feb. 13th for the launch of the brand's new line of sportswear endorsed by the tennis phenom.
Regarding the products that bear his name, Nishikori said bashfully, "It's probably a little early for all this, but I'm very proud of it."
In the three days leading up to the launch, he had been Japan's ace for the Davis Cup international team competition series against Croatia.
It marked a triumphant return to Japan for Nishikori, who had just made the final eight in the Australian Open and risen to 20th in the world rankings, so tickets sold out quickly. He won one and lost one of his two singles matches, and Japan was narrowly defeated with a record of two wins and three losses.
The day after the Uniqlo product launch, Nishikori attended another press conference to announce his partnership contract with Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer, and in the evening he departed for Argentina where his next battle awaited. It was a whirlwind return to Japan that left him with no time to visit his family home in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture.
According to his mother, Eri, 51, he has only been able to return home once a year for around five days since he began participating in the ATP World Tour.
His last visit was in November 2011. He had just beaten world number one Novak Djokovic, which elevated him to 24th in the world rankings, the highest ever position for a Japanese male player. After being greeted at Shimane's Izumo Airport by four of his relatives bearing flowers, he had dinner with his parents at a favorite local chicken stew restaurant. It was but a brief family reunion in his hometown.
In the car on the way home, his father, Kiyoshi, 55, seated in the back, spoke to his son in the passenger seat.
"The pressure's off now you've improved on Shuzo Matsuoka's 46th." "I've never given that any thought," Nishikori replied. "I was sure that I could do better." His mother simply smiled wryly as she drove and said, "No comment."
For Nishikori's parents, these words from their supremely confident son were reassuring, and even endearing.
'King' on the court
Nishikori began playing tennis at the age of 5, and won three junior titles as an elementary school sixth-grader. He was also a key member of his local soccer team, but had already announced to his parents and others that he would make a living from playing tennis. He had become devoted to it instead of a team sport because winning and losing is entirely up to the individual.
In his second year of junior high he was selected as a recipient of the Masaaki Morita Tennis Fund scholarship, set up by then Japan Tennis Association president Masaaki Morita with his own personal finances, and traveled to the United States. He was based at the IMG Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, a prestigious institution that had produced such star players as Andre Agassi and Maria Sharapova.
It was a residential facility, and every hour of every day was spent on tennis. Nishikori was bombarded with rapid-fire English, and also had the unpleasant experience of having his possessions stolen.
"Kei couldn't speak English, so I thought he might go home out of homesickness," says Nick Bollettieri, the Academy's founder and head trainer. A distressed Nishikori reassured himself with the understanding that he had to hone his skills at the academy in order to become a professional player.
For around one year from spring of 2009, an injury to his right knee saw him sidelined from action. As he underwent rehabilitation, his mental conditioning coach Angus Mugford told him the story of the comeback of Lance Armstrong, an American cyclist who overcame cancer to win the Tour de France seven times in a row.
"No one who has achieved success got there without experiencing setbacks. I wanted to get that message across to him. When his injury healed and he was able to rediscover the joy of playing the game he loved to the fullest of his abilities, Kei broke out of his shell."
Bollettieri agrees. "The diversity of his shots and his agility on the court is on a par with the world's best. The Kei of today is brimming with confidence, and he's not daunted by the prospect of taking on the top players."
Nishikori is actually humble and mild-mannered in person, with a laid-back style of speaking. That all changes when he steps onto the court. His cool countenance and the way he calls for a towel from a ball boy by gesturing with his right index finger exudes an aura that says, "I'm the star on the court."
The skill gap between him and the world's best players is a narrow one, so the mental aspect can be decisive. "Losing or gaining a point at crunch time is about whether I can feel absolutely sure that I can win," says Nishikori. This is the level of competition that he is moving up to.
Within sight of the top ten
I first interviewed Nishikori four years ago in London, on the eve of his debut in a Grand Slam event (one of the world's four major tennis tournaments) at Wimbledon.
At the time, there was a tendency in the media to treat golfer Ryo Ishikawa and baseball pitcher Yuki Saito as young heartthrobs. Nishikori is around the same age. "It's difficult to do your best when you're the subject of so much attention," he said. "If it had been me, I'd have felt like running away." Florida was the ideal environment for him, as it enabled him to focus entirely on tennis.
At the end of the interview, I asked him the following question. Did he remember writing a senryu poem around the time he graduated from elementary school that said, "Best in Japan, then I'll go one better than that next, best in the world"?
"Yes, I remember. I want to be the top player in the world before I quit the sport."
It's natural for young people to have grand plans for their future. Even so, my honest impression was that "best in the world" might be aiming too high. At any rate, Nishikori's qualification for Wimbledon was the first time in five years that a Japanese male player had appeared in the competition.
However, Nishikori had thought about tennis from a global perspective since his elementary school days, and was a different breed compared to the Japanese players who had come before him. He raised his goal from 50th in the world to 30th, then 20th, and achieved it each time. This must mean he has an exceptional strong ability to condition himself mentally.
"I had a vague hunch, or rather an assurance (that I could do it)."
Recently, when Nishikori is asked at events about his current goal, he unwaveringly answers: "Winning the Grand Slam." It is an accomplishment that has never been achieved by a Japanese player. Perhaps I have been mesmerized by his rapid development, but his words do not come across as mere hyperbole.
This year his excellent form has continued, and the target he set late last year of becoming one of the top ten ranked players in two years is starting to look achievable. Although the road to the pinnacle of the sport is becoming steeper as he gets closer to it, Nishikori is picking up the pace.
* * *
Born in 1989 in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture. Began playing tennis at the age of 5. Drew attention as an elementary school sixth-grader for winning three junior tournaments including the national tennis championship for elementary school students, and began training in the United States from the age of 13. In February 2008 at the age of 18, he achieved the feat of becoming the second player in Japanese men's singles history to win an ATP tournament. That same year, he became the first Japanese male player in 71 years to reach the best 16 at the U.S. Open. Achieved a world ranking of 30th in October 2011, breaking the record for a Japanese male player for the first time in 19 years. Reached the last eight at the Australian Open in January this year, becoming the first Japanese male player in 17 years to do so at a Grand Slam event. Rose to 17th in the world rankings in February. He is 178 centimeters tall and weighs 70 kilograms.
Favorite saying: "At anytime, anyone can get lucky, believe it." In his elementary school days he developed an interest in the work of Japanese poet Mitsuo Aida, and created this phrase in his own style. "Even in adverse circumstances, you have to believe that something good will come along sometime," he says. "That transforms into motivation."
Family: His father, Kiyoshi, bought him a tennis racket on a company vacation to Hawaii, which was the reason he became immersed in the sport. Kiyoshi put aside his hobbies of fishing and golf, and devoted himself to coaching his son. Nishikori's older sister, Reina, 26, was also a dedicated player who competed in national tournaments from elementary school and played for her school tennis club until she entered university.
The origin of the name "Kei": According to his father, "I gave him the name because it's easy for foreigners to pronounce, and because I had a vague desire to raise him as a citizen of the world."
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