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Kei Nishikori: Going from child prodigy to Asia’s brightest hope

Kei Nishikori’s journey to the US Open final began a decade ago, when he was spotted as a teen at a tryout in Japan and invited to move to Florida to attend a tennis academy.

tennis Updated: Sep 08, 2014 00:22 IST

Kei Nishikori’s journey to the US Open final began a decade ago, when he was spotted as a teen at a tryout in Japan and invited to move to Florida to attend a tennis academy.

Nishikori was among the first beneficiaries of a project to improve Japanese tennis funded by former Sony executive Masaaki Morita. “Kei was just 14, and he didn’t speak a word of English,” said Nick Bollettieri, a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame who coached players such as Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier and Monica Seles. “He was gifted. Great speed. Great eyes.”

Hero back home
As Nishikori worked his way up the world rankings after turning professional in 2007, he became so well-known back home that it seemed less distracting to stay in Florida. On the rare occasions he plays in Japan, tournaments sell out within hours.

Now that he’s the first man from Asia to make it to the final of a Grand Slam singles tournament, his profile — and that of his sport — figures to grow exponentially in his home country. Even though he hasn’t lived there for years, the nation is watching as he heads into Monday’s final against Marin Cilic.

“Even from 17, 18, from when he won his first title, it’s been sometimes even a bit over-the-top, maybe all a bit too early,” said Nishikori’s agent, Olivier Van Lindonk. “They are so intrigued by their heroes that they want to know everything. I’ve heard so many questions about: When did he eat? When did he go to bed?”

Nishikori’s surprising 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory over Novak Djokovic began at about 1 a.m. Sunday in Japan, but people across the country stayed awake to keep track. When the match ended, Nishikori told the crowd during an on-court interview: “I hope it’s big news in Japan... It’s 4 o’clock in the morning, but I hope a lot of people watched it.”

They did. As soon as he checked his phone, Nishikori found 20 messages from folks in Japan, despite the hour. Hundreds of fans celebrated after following along on television at a hotel in Nishikori’s hometown of Matsue, a sleepy town with a population of less than 200,000. It was the lead story on TV news programmes, and the mass circulation Asahi Shimbun issued a special online edition touting his success.

“This is easily the biggest news in the history of Japanese tennis,” said Jun Kamiwazumi, a former member of Japan’s Davis Cup team who reached the third round at the 1973 US Open.

Raking in the moolah
It also will make him even more money than the $10 million in endorsements he reportedly already earns from sponsors. Nishikori, the first man from Japan to be ranked in the ATP’s top 10, has existing contracts that include escalator clauses providing extra money for certain accomplishments, such as reaching a Grand Slam final.

It adds up to a far bigger take than his on-court prize money, which was less than $2 million this season entering the US Open.

But what matters more to the 24-year-old, by the sound of it, is the impact he can have in his native country. “I hope more kids start playing tennis,” he said. “I hope I can make a little bit difference.”

First Published: Sep 08, 2014 00:19 IST