It’s been a very good year for tennis in Asia.
China’s Li Na won her second Grand Slam when she captured the Australian Open title in January. She ascended to her best ranking ever at No. 2 before injury problems forced her to retire at the age of 32.
But just as Li called it quits, her countrywoman Peng Shuai made a splash of her own. One of the top doubles players in the world, Peng teamed with Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei to win their second Grand Slam at the 2014 French Open. Peng then went on a surprising run in singles play at the U.S. Open, where she reached the semifinals against Caroline Wozniacki before succumbing to severe cramps that forced her to retire from the match.
At that same U.S. Open, another Asian player enthralled the Flushing Meadows patrons for a fortnight. Japan’s Kei Nishikori became the first Asian-born man to reach the final of a Grand Slam, in the process defeating No. 5 Milos Raonic, No. 3 Stan Wawrinka, and top-ranked Novak Djokovic in succession.
Nishikori finally ran out of gas in the final against the big-serving Croat Marin Cilic, but his play in the Open – and throughout the year, really – has ignited a tennis boom in his native Japan. In front of a partisan Tokyo crowd in October, Nishikori beat Canada’s Raonic again in a three-set thriller to claim his second Rakuten Japan Open title in three years.
With a career-best four titles this year, Nishikori now aims to end it on a high note. By rising to No. 5 in the world ranking – the highest ever held by an Asian-born man – he qualified for the ATP World Tour Finals that begins Sunday in London. Grouped with Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Raonic, Nishikori has a chance to emerge out of this elite eight-man event with a top-four ranking to finish 2014.
It’s all pretty heady stuff for a 24-year-old who began the year very much an afterthought in an era dominated by the “Big Four” of Federer, Djokovic, Murray and Rafael Nadal.
“I might get nervous (being my) first time but I’ll try to play my best tennis and not to think too much of it being the Tour Finals,” Nishikori said of his first appearance in the year-end event. “Beating Novak at the U.S. Open was a great experience and gave me a lot of confidence. So for sure I know I have a chance to beat the top players, so if I can play well, I have some chance to win some matches.”
Djokovic, who hopes to maintain his No. 1 ranking to finish the year, is effusive in his praise for Nishikori after beating him in the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris last week.
“He still is a young player, but definitely experiencing the best season of his life,” Djokovic said. “He showed that he can win against anybody, really. He’s an all-around player and very, very quick – one of the quickest players on the tour. Very aggressive, very solid from both forehand and backhand side, so not much flaws in the game.
“I think he has improved since he started working with [coach] Michael Chang.”
Chang, a Chinese-American who won the French Open at age 17 and the first person of Asian heritage to claim a Grand Slam, has revamped Nishikori’s game much in his own image. As neither man is blessed with height or power, Chang is honing Nishikori’s all-court game so the Japanese player now capable of grinding down almost any opponent.
Under Chang’s tutelage that began in early 2014, Nishikori has far surpassed his initial and modest “Project 45” goal as a youngster – No. 46 being the best ranking ever achieved by a Japanese men’s player before Nishikori. He’s now being mentioned along with Raonic (age 23), Cilic (26) and Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov (23) as a group that’s primed to take the torch from the “Big Four.”
Until Cilic’s win at the U.S. Open, the “Big Four” had claimed an astonishing 36 of the previous 38 Grand Slam titles. In fact, 2014 was the first year since 2003 in that the “Big Four” did not grab at least three legs of the majors, as Wawrinka also prevailed at the Australian Open.
With the ageless Federer (33) not ready to hang it up and Djokovic rejuvenated after taking some time off to get married and have his first child, the “Big Four” have no plans to go away quietly. Nishikori and his cohorts will have to fight hard to earn that elusive Grand Slam victory.
With the retiring Li as an inspiration, Nishikori hopes his time will come soon.
“It was very sad to see her retire because what she’s done was amazing for Asian tennis,” Nishikori told Reuters. “Also for me, I got a lot of confidence from seeing her play great tennis and winning Grand Slams.
“Hopefully I will be in her position soon. I won’t say next year but hopefully I can make a Grand Slam final again in the next couple of years and win it.”