Kei Nishikori came up a bit short, but his long run at the U.S. Open has made a lasting impact for tennis in Japan, and Asia.
After consecutive victories over three of the world’s top five players, Nishikori simply ran out of gas in Monday’s final against Croatia’s Marin Cilic, losing 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. Still, it was the 24-year-old Japanese star’s first final in a Grand Slam tournament and boosted his ATP Ranking to a career-best No. 8.
“I was a little bit tight and nervous,” Nishikori said after the match. “So many things to think about. I was trying to concentrate, but it wasn’t enough, I guess. Played too many tennis on the court these two weeks. Couldn’t fight one more match.”
It had been a scintillating run for Nishikori, who had reached the quarterfinals of a major tournament just once previously in his career. A year ago, he was bounced out of the U.S. Open by a qualifier in the first round.
But he enthralled the fans both at Flushing Meadows and his homeland of Japan during the past fortnight with his gutsy and indefatigable play. At 5-foot-10 and considered diminutive by men’s tennis standards, he took down fifth-seeded Canadian serving machine Milos Raonic in the fourth round, third-seeded and Australian Open champ Stan Wawrinka in the quarters, and then stunned top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the semifinals.
Against Cilic in the final, Nishikori simply had no answer for the big 14th-seed with a booming serve. Cilic delivered 17 aces in just 14 service games and broke Nishikori five times to become the first Croat to claim a Grand Slam title since his coach Goran Ivanisevic won the 2001 Wimbledon.
Nishikori, bidding to become the first Asian-born man to win a major, certainly didn’t lack crowd support. His parents Eri and Kiyoshi were in the stands at Arthur Ashe Stadium to witness the fans cheering enthusiastically for their son, who moved to the U.S. at age 14 to pursue a career in professional tennis.
“The crowd was 75-25 for Nishikori,” Tim Joyce, who covers tennis for RealClearSports, told The Diplomat. “Not in an anti-Cilic way at all but just generally for Nishikori. NYC, as you know, has a few Asian people, so there were many Japanese/Asian fans in attendance. There was one solidly pro-Cilic Croatian crowd in the upper level. … But the match being a rout from early on reduced the enthusiasm a bit as it went on.”
At least two dozen members of the Japanese media were on hand for the final as well as several TV crews, according to Joyce, who’s been covering the Open since the early 2000s and has never seen this much Japanese media presence.
The final began at 6 a.m. Tokyo time Tuesday, but that didn’t keep thousands of Japanese from cramming sports bars, auditoriums or even parks to watch the match. In Japan, the U.S. Open matches were only available on satellite provider WOWWOW, which was flooded with requests for new subscriptions as the tournament went on. NHK, Japan’s national broadcasting corporation, picked up the final and televised the match later in the day on Tuesday.
Japanese fans also rushed to purchase products endorsed by Nishikori throughout the tournament. Uniqlo, a Japanese clothing company previously best known for providing apparel for seven-time Grand Slam winner Djokovic, sold out the “Dry Ex” shirts specifically designed for Nishikori. His Wilson rackets were also flying off the shelves in stores across Japan.
Nishikori’s long run at the Open not only establishes him as a potential rising star, but further enhances his power as an endorser. Even entering the Open, he was already the highest-paid men’s tennis player outside of the “Big Four” of Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. In addition to Uniqlo and Wilson, he also has sponsorship deals with Adidas, Tag Heuer and Nissin worth an estimated $10.5 million annually.
While Nishikori will have no trouble cashing in – his sponsors have already promised to shower him with large bonuses – he still has a ways to go to prove his deep U.S. Open run was not a one-off fluke. With the “Big Four” showing some signs of decline, Nishikori will be fighting his generational cohorts to dominate tennis’ new era.
The 6-foot-6 Cilic, who will turn 26 in September, obviously has vaulted to the top of that list. Other future contenders will no doubt also include Raonic and Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov, both 23 and Wimbledon semifinalists this year.
But Japan is bullish on Nishikori’s future prospects, including new fan Shinzo Abe.
“Previously it was unimaginable that a Japanese player could make it onto the court for finals,” the Japanese prime minister told reporters after the final. “Nishikori is still young. I hope he keeps on doing his best.”