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Kei Nishikori

 

Dark sunglasses and a hat pulled down are usually only a necessity for rock stars and the truly elite in world sport.

But in a country where celebrity worship is big business and with no other male tennis player in the top 100 to share the spotlight, 23-year-old Kei Nishikori is already having to pull off the incognito look to stave off unwanted public attention in his day-to-day life.

The world No.12 may not have cracked the top 10 and may not be quite ready to seriously challenge for a Grand Slam title, but his results and marketability – particularly in the country with the world’s third-largest economy – have already made him a bona fide superstar at home.

One need only see the line of Japanese press filing into the interview room beneath Rod Laver Arena to realise the attention the 178cm Nishikori garners.

His IMG agent, Olivier Van Lindonk, has spoken of there being more than a dozen Japanese outlets with dedicated reporters following Nishikori around the world.

Already Asia’s most accomplished player, the expectations are building.

In 2012, Nishikori became the first Japanese player to reach the last eight at the Australian Open, and when he went on to reach the fourth round at Roland Garros in 2013, he was the first Japanese man in 75 years to progress as far.

His conquerer in that match, Rafael Nadal, tipped a big future for his fleet-footed opponent.

“A candidate to be top 10 without any doubt,” Nadal said.

Nishikori’s rise has come as little surprise.

As a 13-year-old, he moved to the United States to be part of the Bollettieri Academy, and he announced his presence on tour winning the Delray Beach title as an 18-year-old qualifier ranked 244thin the world.

He now counts wins against Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer among his scalps, and with the top 10 in sight, he has called on the expertise of another diminutive former champion, Michael Chang.

“He’s not the tall guy; same as me,” Nishikori said. “I mean, he’s American, but he’s half Asian. (I) do think we can know more stuff. Yeah, I think we (are) doing great.”

A quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open two years ago is the Japanese player’s best outing in a major, and a run to the fourth round again last year gives Nishikori the belief his best chance of that next big breakthrough could well come at his favourite Grand Slam in Melbourne, the site he feels most at home outside his native Japan.

“I have confidence in my ability,” Nishikori told Tokyo Weekender. “I do believe I can become a better player, but just saying it isn’t enough, I need to work hard and show it with performances on the court. In order to get to that elite level I really need to improve both my physical and mental toughness.”

No amount of sunglasses and hats will deflect the surge in attention Nishikori has earned should he stand with the champion’s trophy in hand after Australian Open 2014.

 

Kei Nishikori plays Marinko Matosevic on Show Court 2 starting 11AM AEST. 

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Post-Tournament
Sunday, 21 September 2014
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