Five things you need to know about Kei Nishikori, the highest-ranked Japanese in the history of men’s tennis, who will play Andy Murray in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open. Nishikori, ranked 26, reached the last eight of a grand slam for the first time by defeating France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Nick Bollettieri, who regards himself as the grandfather figure in Nishikori’s life, has predicted that the 22-year-old Japanese has the talent to break into the top ten. “If Kei’s serve continues to improve, and if he continues to play an attacking game, he could end up becoming a top-ten player,” Bollettieri told The Tennis Space. “He’s gaining so much self-confidence now, and that’s great. When he first came to my academy in Florida, as a young teenager, he could not speak a word of English, and he was homesick – it wasn’t easy for him. I think the fact that his English has improved so much has helped him so much – it has enabled him to communicate with the crowd and with his coach. Now he is the highest ranked Japanese in their history. He’s a great player, he has great movement, and he’s a shot-maker.”
A country which gets its tennis from a television station called Wow Wow is never going to be restrained in their admiration and adulation. “It’s unbelievable the attention I get,” said Nishikori, whose father Kiyoshi is an engineer and whose mother Eri is a piano teacher. “In Tokyo and the other big cities, I always have people coming up to talk to me, to take pictures of me. Baseball and soccer are the most popular sports in Japan, but I hope I can make tennis more popular back home, I guess. It’s getting more popular already. All the kids are starting to play, and maybe that’s because of me.”
Roger Federer, who played and beat Nishikori in the final of last autumn’s tournament in Basle, agreed that Nishikori could achieve a single-digit ranking. “Ever since I played against him when he was 17, I have thought that he had great potential,” Federer has said. “I always saw a very talented player in front of me. I’m sure he’s going to be a wonderful player. Only the future will tell if he’s going to be in the top ten or the top five.”
Nishikori’s English has improved from listening to Brad Gilbert, who he has used a super-caffeinated, super-talkative coaching consultant. One of the reasons that Andy Murray ditched Gilbert was that the Scot could not take the constant chatter, but it would seem that Nishikori has been treating his time with Brad as a language class (a class in Brad-speak, a form of English in which everyone on the men’s tour has a nickname, and players are sometimes “taken to the woodshed”). “Brad is talking all day – that’s kind of new for me,” Nishikori has said. “It’s useful, I think for me to learn English.” When Nishikori first met Gilbert, the Japanese was sharing a room at the Bollettieri Academy with Gilbert’s son, Zach. “My first contact with Brad was through his son, and then Brad started coming to the academy as a ‘guest-coach’ and I got to know him even better.”
The Japanese tennis public are going to have to think of a new nickname for Nishikori.For years, he was known as ‘Project 45′, a reference to the ranking he would have to achieve to become the most successful Japanese male player in history, above Shuzo Matsuoka, Nishikori’s former coach and a former world number 46. A strong autumn push from Nishikori – he defeated Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals of the Basel tournament, after taking the final set 6-0 – took him past Matsuoka.