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'Project 10:' Japan's rising son Nishikori feels weight of expectation
By Chris Murphy and Jessica Ellis, CNN
August 1, 2013
(CNN) -- For Kei Nishikori, "Project 45" has transformed into "Project 10."
The former was the 23-year-old's mission to topple the highest tennis ranking ever held by a Japanese male, Shuzo Matsuoka, who hit world No. 46 back in July 1992.
Nishikori smashed through that particular barrier towards the end of 2011 and has enjoyed a formidable few years on Tour, beating the likes of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
Japan's rising son now sits in the lofty position of world No. 11 -- his highest ever ranking -- and is tantalizingly poised to gatecrash the top 10.
But with success comes expectation.
This surge towards the game's pinnacle has elevated Nishikori to rock star-like status in his home country, its population clamoring for their first ever grand slam champion.
"I try not to think too much because if I start thinking then I feel pressure myself," Nishikori told CNN's Human to Hero series.
"I think people have started thinking about me winning a grand slam or getting to the top ten but it might take some time.
"I sometimes feel the pressure from a lot of things -- my team, my country, my fans -- but you have to handle it well.
"My next goal is to win a grand slam. Hopefully I can do it someday."
A first major could be around the corner if famed tennis coach Nick Bollettieri is to be believed.
Nishikori left Japan for Bollettieri's Florida academy aged just 13 without a grasp of English, but the intensive work on his game bore fruit within five years as he lifted his first ATP Tour title in Delray Beach.
According to the man who has coached a phalanx of the game's greats like Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Boris Becker and the Williams sisters, Nishikori is "a shot maker."
Bollettieri told CNN. "When he's on, he can beat anybody in the world."
Djokovic and Federer can testify to that.
Both victories served as proof Nishikori has what it takes to prosper at the game's top table.
In 2012 he became the first Japanese player to reach the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in 80 years and then went on to win the Japan Open -- the first home-grown talent to do so in the tournament's 41-year history.
He may have lost to eventual champion Rafael Nadal in the fourth round at this year's French Open, but he was the first Japanese player to get to that stage since 1938.
Nishikori clearly relishes testing himself against the best players of what is widely regarded as a golden generation.
"I love to play against the top ten guys," he said. "Beating Roger this year and beating Djokovic two years ago -- that is why I am playing tennis, to play those top 10 guys and to beat them.
"I still haven't beat Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray, there are more challenges to come to play those guys."
At world No. 11 he is the highest ranked Asian male player by a distance -- the next in line is Yen-Hsun Lu from Chinese Tapei in 60th -- and Nishikori wants to blaze a trail like Li Na who won China's first ever grand slam at the women's French Open in 2011.
"I am trying to get to be the most successful player in Asia," Nishikori added. "In tennis not many players get to the top 10 -- I think only a few in the past.
"It's still weird for me to think I'm the number one player in Asia, because when I was young I couldn't think I'd be the number one player in Japan or even Asia.
"But now I am and I have to receive it in my mind, my dream is coming and hopefully I can go further. I think Li Na did a great job. Hopefully I can be the first one to lead the young guys."
Nishikori still refers to Federer, whose elegance while accumulating his 17 major titles has seen him described as the greatest the game has ever seen, as his idol.
No wonder then that Nishikori joked he'd need a couple of days to celebrate after achieving one of his career goals by beating the Swiss at the Madrid Masters in May.
Federer's dominance of men's tennis was ingrained by the time Nishikori turned professional, but prior to that it was Matsuoka he was desperate to emulate.
"I have two heroes," he explained. "The first one is Shuzo Matsuoka, he was the first (successful Japanese player) -- he was the best tennis player in Japan.
"And Roger Federer. Still now, even though I love to see him play I think he is really the champion of tennis history."
Nishikori's rise saw a swell of optimism that he could be a pioneer for tennis, hence the 'Project 45' hype as he edged towards usurping Matsuoka's ranking.
"Project 45 was no pressure for me -- I was just playing tennis for my hobby," he said.
"My first goal after turning pro was to get into the top 100 and after to be 45. It was one of my goals to be number one tennis player in Japan, and now I am ranked No. 11 in the world.
"To get to the top 10 is my next goal. It's not going to be easy to get there -- hopefully this year -- but I am getting close."
Rock star status
Like Matsuoka, Nishikori has come to understand what being Japan's sole representative inside the top 120 means -- fame and adoration.
Much like Andy Murray who has had to carry the hopes of the United Kingdom on his shoulders, Nishikori has the same weight of responsibility, but answers to double the amount of people.
"I go back to Japan about three or four times a year," he explained. "I get to go back to my home town and, yes, people do recognize me on the streets.
"It's not easy sometimes; you don't get to relax but at the same time I still try to enjoy the moment. Not many people can feel that way -- I love to stay in Japan, I really enjoy it when I go back."
Not for a second does he begrudge the accoutrements that his success in the game has delivered. He's just a boy made good from Shimane acting out his hobby on the global stage.
"For me, playing tennis was always my hobby, I am a lucky guy," he said.
"It was something I loved. It is something that can make you mad or crazy sometimes but it is something you love and not many guys can do your job.
"I try to enjoy this moment and this life -- it is not going to be a long time, 10 to 20 years, so I'm going to work hard."
August 5, 2013
K. NISHIKORI/P. Polansky
4‑6, 6‑4, 6‑2
THE MODERATOR: Questions, please.
Q. Can you explain what you need to improve over the next years?
KEI NISHIKORI: I guess I was making too much unforced errors today. I have to improve. Not many easy points to give.
The serve wasn't good today. I have to keep practicing well, high percentage, a little more speed.
Q. Do you feel you can climb the rankings up to which spot in the next years?
KEI NISHIKORI: Hopefully to get top 10 maybe this year or next year. That's my next goal.
But it's not easy to keep this ranking. I want to stay this ranking, whatever I can. Everybody's close. Hopefully couple years to get top 10.
Q. It was only your second visit in Montréal. What is the main reason?
KEI NISHIKORI: I mean, it's big tournament, so everybody want to do well. Yeah, these two Masters really important for us, especially for me. I like hard court. I didn't get much points last year, so hopefully I can do well here.
Q. Can you describe the best moment of your career at this point?
KEI NISHIKORI: I think winning Japan Open last year. It was some big memory for me, winning my home country. First time in history. I was really happy.
Q. Who was your idol when you grew up?
KEI NISHIKORI: Roger.
Nishikori back for Kooyong Classic tennis
Date November 22, 2013
World No.17 Kei Nishikori on Friday confirmed his addition to a strong field for January's Kooyong Classic tennis event in Melbourne.
In the Australian Open lead-up tournament, the Japanese player will join defending champion Lleyton Hewitt, world top-10 players Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland, Czech Tomas Berdych and Frenchman Richard Gasquet and rising star Grigor Dimitrov, with two players yet to be announced.
Nishikori, forced to withdraw from the this year's Classic with a knee injury, said he was delighted to return to Melbourne to contest the historic event from January 8-11.
"I'm really looking forward to playing the AAMI Classic," said the 23-year-old. "I only played one match last year against (Paul Henri) Mathieu before I had to pull out injured, but I saw the magnificent venue at Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club and I can't wait to get there to play again."
After recovering from the early-season injury, Nishikori won his third ATP World Tour title in February at Memphis, recorded his fourth win over a top-five opponent in May, defeating Roger Federer in three sets in Madrid to reach the quarter-finals and he achieved a career-high world ranking of No.11 after making the French Open fourth round.
Tournament Director Brian Cooney welcomed Nishikori's return to Kooyong.
"I'm delighted that Kei has chosen to play at the AAMI Classic," said Cooney. "Kei is a rising star in men's tennis - one of the standout members of 'Generation Next' - and he has a huge fan base here in Australia."
Nishikori said he was excited to challenge for the title.
"Hopefully, I can get my name on the amazing honour roll they have there," he said, in reference to legendary winners including Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Federer, Andy Roddick, Hewitt and Pat Cash.
How Rising Tennis Star Kei Nishikori Made $10 Million This Year
Miguel Morales, Forbes Staff
Most casual sports fans have never heard of Kei Nishikori before, but that hasn’t stopped him from raking in sponsors—and the cash that comes with them.
Nishikori is ranked 12th in the world and has never played in a Grand Slam final, let alone a semifinal. Despite this low profile, Japan’s top player quietly pocketed $10.5 million dollars this year, enough to land him in the ranks of tennis’ top-earning tennis players, at number 10.
The 23 year old enjoyed his best year on tour to date, amassing nearly $1.5 million in prize money from June 2012 to June 2013 (the period FORBES uses to value the world’s highest-paid athletes). While impressive, these on-court earnings are dwarfed by his endorsement portfolio. Adding appearance fees and exhibitions, FORBES pegs Nishikori’s off-court haul at $9 million during the same time
Nishikori is a sponsor’s dream for a few reasons. At the tender age of 23 he’s easily the best male to ever play the sport from Japan. His steady but assured rise in the rankings the last few years suggests to fans and advertisers that the best is yet to come. A spokesperson at UNIQLO, one of Kei’s sponsors, said, “his popularity and wide appeal, both in Japan and abroad, is a perfect match for us.”
He can also thank demographics for the opportunity to cash in on his top-flight talent. Say what you will about Japan’s sputtering growth, the island nation still boasts the third largest economy in the world, with demographics (a large, older population with disposable incomes) that dovetail nicely with tennis sponsors’ target audience. Unsurprisingly, half of Nishikori’s sponsors are based in Japan.
The number of advertisers Nishikori has landed is unheard of for someone who hasn’t vaulted to the top ranking or bagged a Grand Slam. “The top five, 10 players soak up the majority of sponsorships. Outside the top 10, there’s not a lot of sponsor money going around,” Michael Russell, an American pro tennis player, told FORBES. In addition to a long-term deal with Uniqlo, Nishikori has Wilson, Adidas /companies/adidas/and Tag Heuer in his corner. He also has deals with Weider Supplements, Jaccs /companies/jaccs/, Nissin, EA Game, Air Weave and WOWOW—yeah, wow.
The Uniqlo spokesperson added, “We have ambitions to work with Kei on other projects.” An athlete-branded apparel line, a la Nike’s Maria Sharapova collection, would be a natural evolution in their relationship, one that would line Nishikori’s pockets even more.
For Nishikori to take the next step in his career—and match the salaries of the game’s best players—he’ll need to step up at the Slams. So far in his career, he’s only reached one quarterfinal (the 2012 Aussie Open), where he was dispatched by Andy Murray with ease. A stronger serve and a better transition game to the net could help him better contend with the game’s current greats.
Nishikori first made a splash on the men’s tour in 2008 when he won the Delray Beach tournament as an 18-year-old qualifier ranked 244th in the world. Should he claim one of the four Grand Slam titles, Nishikori will see his brand and bottom-line skyrocket, much the same way Li Na’s did in 2011. A surprise French Open titlist in 2011, Li became one of the richest athletes in the world thanks to her triumph in Paris, pocketing $18 million that year alone.
Lifting one of tennis’ biggest trophies would propel Nishikori to worldwide superstardom, and give him the take-home pay to match, not that he’s hurting for money at the moment. His agent, IMG Tennis Vice President Olivier van Lindonk, noted, “We’ve said no to several deals based on the fact that it did not fit in Kei’s lifestyle and portfolio.” That will be the key to long-term financial success for Nishikori and his team: ensuring that new sponsorships align with the tennis star’s clean-cut, affable image.
As Nishikori continues to ascend tennis’ rankings, expect to see him climb the rungs of the sport’s top earners as well.
Kei NishikoriTotal earnings: $10.5 millionThe 23-year-old Nishikori has reached only one Grand Slam quarterfinal (2012 Australian Open), but has racked up 10 endorsement agreements as Japan's top player. The world's 12th ranked player counts Uniqlo, Adidas, Wilson and Tag Heuer.
Prize money: $1.5 million
Endorsements: $9 million
2014 AAMI CLASSIC CHAMPION KEI NISHIKORI
Saturday, 11 January 2014
Japan's Kei Nishikori has joined his coach Michael Chang on the honour roll at Kooyong after shocking world No.7 Tomas Berdych to win the AAMI Classic.
Nishikori, the 16th seed at next week's Australian Open, turned the tables on the rangy Czech after an earlier loss to take the title 6-4 7-5.
He was watched in the stands by former French Open champion Chang, a three-time winner at the Melbourne venue in 1995-97.
It continues a promising start to the year for the 24-year-old who was eliminated in the Brisbane International semi-finals by Lleyton Hewitt.
Nishikori broke Berdych in the second game of the match to steam to a 3-0 lead. He served for the set at 5-3 but was broken.
Berdych got to 40-15 and looked like he was going to square the set at 5-5 but the Japan No.1 fought back to take it out.
The match appeared headed into a third set but Nishikori saved two break points at 5-5 and then broke the Czech to wrap up the title with a searing cross-court backhand
AUSTRALIAN OPEN 2014
Nishikori Revelling In Melbourne Park Pressure
by ATP Staff | 12.01.2014
Kei Nishikori has enjoyed his best Grand Slam results at the Australian Open.
Glancing at Kei Nishikori’s career highlights, every year since 2010 begins with the same sentence: “the top Asian player from Japan” followed by a career-topping feat. It’s been constant improvement.
Carrying the weight of Japan’s tennis hopes has become part of the routine for Nishikori, and at the Grand Slam of the Asia-Pacific it is a weight he has thrived on. He recorded his best Grand Slam result in Melbourne in 2012, winning three memorable five-set blockbusters en route to a quarter-final loss to Andy Murray, his legs all but out of miles.
Fresh off a semi-final result at the Brisbane International and victory at the AAMI Classic exhibition in Kooyong last week, beating favoured Czech Tomas Berdych in a straight-sets final, the 24 year old’s 2014 highlights are set to follow the same rising path.
“I think that's going to help a little bit to get some confidence. It was a great match against Tomas yesterday,” Nishikori.
Nishikori doesn’t shy away from his status in Asia, beginning work with legendary American star Michael Chang in 2014.
Performing for Japan has always been a high priority for Nishikori and with countryman Go Soeda pushing towards the Top 100—currently No. 112 on the Emirates ATP Rankings—he’s hoping to share Japan’s tennis hopes, and hopefully the ensuing successes.
The task facing Soeda though, is not an easy one: a first round against three-time Australian Open runner-up, Andy Murray.
“If he can be aggressive. Andy is really steady on the groundstrokes. It's not going to be an easy match. Hopefully he wins,” Nishikori said of the match-up.
“I think he started playing more aggressive, trying to come in more, hitting big forehands. He should be Top 100 and he can be a Top 50 player. Hopefully he can come back again to Top 50 and we have a strong Japan team.”
The 16th seed is facing a task of his own in Melbourne, finding himself in the top half of the draw that boasts 35 Grand Slam titles and a path lined with two local hopes and World No. 1 Rafael Nadal in the fourth round.
If Nishikori manages to overcome Australia’s Marinko Matosevic in the first round, he could face a third-round encounter with the country’s veteran Lleyton Hewitt, who outlasted Nishikori in three sets in the Brisbane semi-finals just one week ago.
“It's going to be a tough match against Marinko on Tuesday. Hopefully I can have a good match.
“I only see Marinko in the first round. But, Lleyton is playing great. He beat me in Brisbane. He also won it. He’s 32, but he's still in good shape.
“It's good to see some players like him still playing good. Hopefully I can play good and beat him.”
Nishikori will need to apply all the confidence afforded by his rapid success in the dawn of 2014, but pressure is something the Japanese star has proven not only to handle, but to revel in.
Confidence key for Kei
Sunday, 12 January, 2014
By Dan Imhoff
Japan’s Kei Nishikori affectionately refers to the Australian Open as his “home” Grand Slam tournament. It is, after all, almost in his backyard and the site of his best result at a major to date.
For someone with such an affinity for Australia, he has dealt his fair share of heartache to the host nation’s hopes on home soil in recent years. And while the draw is by no means his own doing – nor should he feel any sympathy for the man standing across the net – he plans on inflicting a little more disappointment on a local player in his first round match this year.
The world No.12, a quarterfinalist in Melbourne two years ago, meets Marinko Matosevic first up and while his late-blooming Australian opponent has never progressed beyond the first round of a major in 11 appearances, he is coming off a semifinal appearance in Brisbane and a quarterfinal run in Sydney.
“Yeah, it's not going to be easy first match and I feel like I always playing Australians,” Nishikori said of playing the world No.54. “I play (Matt) Ebden Brisbane, I played Ebden two years ago, something too, so it's not easy to play, you know … countrymen but if I can play like (the Kooyong final) you know, I have I think big chance to win.”
Nishikori brings confidence into the first major of 2014. He lost to Tomas Berdych last week in the lead-up event at Kooyong before gaining revenge over the Czech in straight sets in the final. The 23-year-old’s name joins the likes of Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt and his new coach, Michael Chang, on the trophy.
Earlier in the week Nishikori spoke of adding the 1989 French Open champion as his coach for 17 to 20 weeks of the 2014 season as he attempts to crack the top 10.
“Yeah we started December. We practised at his home two weeks and yeah he’s giving me a lot of good advice and it’s getting better,” Nishikori said. “Nothing I can say too much, but we’ve been working pretty hard and I see good progress. It’s been working well.”
Another Australian, veteran Lleyton Hewitt, looms as a possible third round opponent for the Japanese player in Melbourne this year.
The very mention of Hewitt playing in a record 18th straight Australian Open last week brought a grin of disbelief to Nishikori’s face.
“Yeah, Lleyton is playing great. He beat me in Brisbane. He also win it. I don't know, he's 32 or 33, but he's still good shape, good playing,” Nishikori said.
“It's good to see, you know, some player like him still playing good. Hopefully I can play good and beat him. But you never know. Hopefully I can win the first one.”
Japan’s favourite son begins his quest for an Australian-slaying run on Tuesday.
Source: AO website
U.S. NATIONAL INDOOR TENNIS CHAMPIONSHIPS 2014
Nishikori Retains Memphis Trophy
by ATP Staff | 16.02.2014
Kei Nishikori toppled Ivo Karlovic 6-4, 7-6(0) to successfully defend his U.S. National Indoor Tennis Championships title on Sunday.
Nishikori has set Memphis ablaze in his two most recent trips, dropping just one set en route to consecutive titles. The Japanese became the first back-to-back winner in Memphis since Tommy Haas retained his 2006 crown.
"It's amazing to defend a title for the first time, especially here," Nishikori said. "I had a great memory from last year and I'm playing great."
It was Nishikori’s fourth ATP World Tour title in his sixth career final and first championship working under the tutelage of both Dante Bottini and 34-time tour-level titlist Michael Chang. The 24 year old improved to 11-2 in 2014.
Nishikori did well to neutralise Karlovic’s powerful serve, which had guided the 6’11” Croat to 42 straight service holds in his four matches leading to the final.
The top seed secured an early break in the third game of the match and withstood 20 aces from his 34-year-old opponent to prevail in 90 minutes. He saved both break points faced and ran away with the second set tie-break without dropping a point. Nishikori pressed for a decisive break earlier in the set, but was denied on all seven opportunities. He clinched the victory on his first match point when a Karlovic return sailed long.
"He's really fast," Karlovic said. "He hits winners from any position on the court. That's his game. He returned really well."
Nishikori registered his first win over Karlovic in three FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings. He failed to win a set their Davis Cup World Group encounter in 2012 and the Delray Beach first round last year.
Karlovic was making his ninth appearance in an ATP World Tour final, bidding for his sixth title. He most recently hoisted the Bogota trophy in 2013.
Nishikori takes home $103,100 and 250 Emirates ATP Rankings points and is poised to re-enter the Top 15. Karlovic garners $54,300 and 150 Emirates ATP Rankings points. The Croat will rise 24 spots to No. 56, his highest ranking in two years.
"I get a lot of confidence from keeping my ranking in the Top 20," said Nishikori. "It's going to take some time to get to Top 10, Top 5, but I think I'm getting close."
"It was a good week for me," added Karlovic. "I'm really happy with the way I played. I hope