Australian Open 2013 is unchartered territory for Kei Nishikori. For the first time in his career, he enters a Grand Slam tournament with a hefty swag of points to defend – and the Japanese admitted on Sunday that being back at Melbourne Park brought mixed emotions.
“I have good memory here. Played really well last year. Hopefully I can go, you know, same or farther. That's my goal this year,” he said.
“(But) it's going to be pressure for sure from first round.”
Nishikori’s march to the quarterfinals in Melbourne last year was the best of his career in a major, a run that included a thrilling five-set upset of No.6 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
That result generated an enormous amount of publicity in his homeland, as he became the first Japanese player in 80 years to reach the final eight of the Australian Open. Nishikori then used his result in Melbourne as a springboard to greater success in 2012.
Beginning the season at No.25, he cracked the top 20 following Melbourne and eventually peaked at No.15 in October after becoming the first Japanese player to capture the Japan Open title in the tournament’s 41-year history.
“It was (an) amazing feeling. It was my goal to win the tournament. It's my home country. Actually, I never played well past three, four years. Last year was different. A lot of confidence coming to play the tournament. It was one of my dream to win the tournament. So I was really happy,” he reflected.
“I'm getting a lot of confidence getting through last year and (winning the) Japan Open, beating a lot of top‑10 players. Am getting a lot of confidence, so hopefully I can go play my best tennis and get a good result (in Australia).”
Nishikori proved that his solid end-of-season form was no flash in the pan, picking up where he left off when the 2013 season began in Brisbane. There, he reached the semifinals, ousting Marinko Matosevic, Tommy Robredo and Alexandr Dolgopolov in straight sets along the way.
But, as has often been the case in the 23-year-old’s career, injury intervened.
A knee ailment forced his withdrawal from the second set of his match against Andy Murray, and from the AAMI Classic at Kooyong the following week. While he’s still not 100 per cent, Nishikori is confident it shouldn’t affect his Australian Open campaign after playing a practice match at Kooyong on Saturday.
“It was fine. So I played three set and nothing happened yesterday, so should be okay for tomorrow,” he said.
Nishikori’s opening round assignment will come against the tall, big-hitting Victor Hanescu of Romania, scheduled first up on Court 6. He’ll need the knee to be in working order if he wants another good showing at Melbourne Park, integral to his goal of achieving a top 10 ranking in 2013.
“It's getting closer, I think,” he said of the lofty ranking class.
“There's a lot of things I have to do, of course, to get top 10. I have to keep physically strong. I have to do well in Grand Slams.”
The Australian Open represents one of his best chances, given he went 23-11 on hardcourt in 2012. Clearly comfortable on the Plexicushion and enjoying the support of the crowd in Melbourne – who have be captivated by his dynamic game and exciting shotmaking – he will also be buoyed by the fact that he has landed in the most open quarter of the men’s draw, headed by No.4 seed David Ferrer and eighth seed Janko Tipsarevic.
Further success at Melbourne Park would move him a step closer to achieving that top-10 goal, one that would see him set more records among tennis players from his country.
And no doubt it would contribute to more happy memories from the year’s first Grand Slam, and a whole new wave of positive emotions which are becoming a fixture in a burgeoning career.