Sport & Culture

Nishikori Shines

Kei Nishikori surprised the tennis world with his latest Australian Open tennis win. Does Japan have a new hero?

China’s Li Na may have been squeezed out of the Australian Open in the fourth round by defending champion Kim Clijsters on Sunday, but Asia (or at least Japan) has a new hero to cheer for in Melbourne in the coming days.

Kei Nishikori has shocked the tennis world by storming into the last eight of the competition by defeating 2008 finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in their fourth round match, 2-6 6-2 6-1 3-6 6-3.

He becomes only the second Japanese male to reach the quarter-final stage in the Open era, the other one being Shuzo Matsuoka in 1995 at Wimbledon.

After breaking onto the scene in 2008, Nishikori looked set for big things, but has struggled with injuries for much of his short career. Even so, he became the first Japanese male to reach the last 16 of the U.S. Open in 2008, and just three months ago made the top 30 in the world rankings, the highest ever position for a male Japanese player since tennis became a professional game. He ended the season ranked 25.

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The way he has started this season suggests a much higher ranking, and now he is “just” two matches away from a Grand Slam final.

The 22 year-old is going to have to overcome fourth seed Andy Murray to make the last four.

Murray made the final last year, and breezed past Mikhail Kukushkin in the fourth round 6-1, 6-1 before the Kazakhstan player retired. The Scot is going to be much fresher than his Japanese opponent, who had to play five sets in sweltering heat.

Still, Nishikori is nothing if not one for a challenge. He left his homeland at the age of 14 to head to Florida to play at an academy that counts Monica Seles, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier as former students. Despite struggling at first in a foreign land and with a foreign language, he eventually settled and then started to shine.

“For me, it is helping me that I was in the U.S. when I was little, playing with all the different players,” he said. “There’s a lot of power players, a lot of different type of the players. So I think that helps me to learn how to win against them.”

This latest success is sure to give the sport a boost in Japan, especially with veteran female player Kimiko Date-Krumm having come out of retirement.

“I think baseball and soccer is one of the biggest sports in Japan,” Nishikori said. “But I think tennis is getting better in these two, three years…Me and Kimiko Date came back. Tennis is getting more popular now.  I think a lot of kids start playing. So tennis is getting popular in Japan.”

A couple more Nishikori wins, and it could be set to explode.