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Nishikori’s brave new world: “I hope I can do much better next year”

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Asia No. 1 KEI NISHIKORI talks about the importance of the ATP’s upcoming three-week Asian swing, the influence of coach Michael Chang, and his desire to improve on a stunning year that featured his first Grand Slam final.

 

September 22, 2014: Fresh off his historic run to the US Open final and a return to the top 10 of the Emirates ATP Rankings, Japan’s Kei Nishikori will enjoy a hero’s welcome as he embarks on the ATP World Tour’s three-week Asian swing.

 

With China hosting events across all three categories for the first time, the Asian swing starts this week with the inaugural Shenzhen Open and Malaysian Open in Kuala Lumpur, both ATP 250 events. It continues with the China Open in Beijing and Rakuten Japan Open in Tokyo – both ATP 500 events – before culminating with the Shanghai Rolex Masters, the five-time ATP Masters 1000 Tournament of the Year.

 

Nishikori will compete in Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo and Shanghai, keeping one eye on becoming the first player from Asia to qualify for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals singles field. The Japanese star is currently sixth in the Emirates ATP Race to London, with only five of the eight singles berths still available.

 

The 24-year-old has already achieved a number of milestones this season, becoming the first Japanese to break into the top 10 and the first Asian to contest the finals of a Masters 1000 event (Mutua Madrid Open) and a Grand Slam (US Open). Nishikori is also one of an all-time high 18 Asian players – including seven from Japan – currently in the world’s top 200, compared to 12 at the end of 2013 and five in 2003.

 

After your run to the US Open final, you rose to No. 6 on the Emirates Race to London. What would it mean to you to qualify for the ATP Finals?

That’s going to be a goal for this year. I hope I can make it to the ATP Finals for the first time. I was quite close last year, but this year I’m No. 6 right now and I have five more tournaments. I don’t really know about my chances, but these three weeks on the Asian swing are going to be really important, especially in Tokyo and Shanghai, so I hope I can do well there.

 

Kei Nishikori will play the Malaysian Open, Rakuten Japan Open and the Shanghai Rolex Masters during the ATP World Tour’s three-week Asian swing. Portraits: SportAsia.

Nishikori will play the Malaysian Open, Rakuten Japan Open and the Shanghai Rolex Masters during the ATP World Tour’s three-week Asian swing. Portraits: SportAsia.

Will it make a big difference to have home support at the Japan Open?

Yeah, I hope so, especially after winning in Tokyo two years ago. Before then, I was feeling a lot of pressure and was always tight; I couldn’t play how I wanted to play. But now I have more confidence and I hope more people will come and cheer for me. I hope I can do well and maybe win the tournament again.

 

You’ve often stated that reaching the top 10 was a target. Now you’ve done that again and reached a Grand Slam final, what are your new targets for 2015 and your career as a whole?

Hopefully I can play consistently and get good results, in Grand Slams especially and big tournaments like the Masters events. I beat those top 10 guys at the US Open and reached a Grand Slam final for the first time, so hopefully I can get back to a final again. I know how tough it is to reach a semi-final and final of a Grand Slam now – it’s not an easy thing to do – but I got a lot of confidence. I hope I can do much better next year.

 

Which of the four Grand Slams do you think you have the best chance of winning?

Now I have to say US Open (laughs), but my favourite is definitely the Australian Open and US Open because I love hardcourt. Australia is Asia and Oceania, so I feel more at home playing there. I feel a lot of support from Asia and Japan, but I did well in Madrid (on clay), so I hope I can do well in the French Open, too.

 

How has Michael Chang changed your game since joining as a coach and do you think your game is more like his now?

Yeah, I think so. I’m trying to be a little more aggressive than before; I try to step in a little more on the baseline and try to come in to the net sometimes. I think now everybody’s playing a little more aggressive. You see Roger [Federer] is coming to the net a lot and I think that’s what I’m trying to do. Also, my serve is getting better and mentally I’m getting stronger with Michael’s experience. I’ve learned a lot of things from him, so it has been good with him.

 

Nishikori won his fifth ATP title at the Barcelona Open in late April, two weeks before reaching his first Masters 100 final at the Madrid Open.

Nishikori won his fifth ATP title in Barcelona in April, before reaching his first Masters 1000 final in Madrid. Photo: AFP.

Michael Chang said in an interview that when he spoke to you earlier in your career, he was disappointed in some things you said, alluding to your confidence. How has he helped changed your mental approach?

I think it’s more that I need to believe in myself, that I can beat those top-10 players. I think that helped me reach the final of the US Open. I was able to beat three top-10 guys in a row. I think mentally I’m a little more calm on the court, so I can concentrate more, like when I won two five-set matches. I think my concentration is much better now, so for sure, he has helped my mental game.

 

Has your physical toughness also improved, considering your performances at the US Open?

Yeah, I think I have a great record for winning in five sets or three sets. Even when I’m tired, I can concentrate well because of the hunger I have. It’s not always easy, especially in the US Open. Mentally I’m tough, but physically I’m a little stronger and I’m able to move around even after three or four hours. I have more confidence in my body and that’s why I’m able to concentrate well on the mental side. (For US Open article: sport-asia.com/tennis-nishikori-overpowered-but-really-happy-for-my-first-final/)

Nishikori finished runner-up to Marin Cilic at the US Open, having beaten Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic.

Nishikori was runner-up to Marin Cilic at the US Open, having beaten Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka and World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in three straight matches. Photo: AFP.

The US Open featured the first Grand Slam final without any of the ‘Big Four’ (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray) since the 2005 Australian Open. How do you think that final will change tennis, in terms of giving confidence to other players?

Actually, with none of those four players in the final, it looked a little bit weird, also for me (laughs). But I think it’s great for tennis. [Marin] Cilic is still young and also you saw at Wimbledon players like [Milos] Raonic and [Grigor] Dimitrov (who both reached the semi-finals) and the new guy [Nick] Kyrgios doing well (knocking out Nadal).

 

You see more young guys coming up and I think it’s a great thing for tennis, for the ATP. I hope I can be the one, always in the top 10 – and if I could see more Asian players, that would be great – but I think it’s really changing right now. Stan [Wawrinka] won the Australian Open, so I hope we can see a little bit of change.

 

Which would you rather accomplish first – winning a Grand Slam or becoming No. 1?

If you want to be No. 1, you have to win a Grand Slam, so I think the first goal is winning a Grand Slam. To be No. 1, there are really so many things to do. You have to be really consistent at every tournament. You don’t want to get too many injuries and you have to be really healthy, but I feel a little closer than before and I hope I can make it in the future.

 

Nishikori engaged with youngsters in Hong Kong ahead of the ATP’s three-week swing.

Nishikori coached and engaged with youngsters in Hong Kong ahead of the ATP’s three-week swing. Photo: ATP.

Tennis is growing in Asia, but what needs to happen to make it bigger?

I guess there are so many things to create. It’s not easy to put another tournament on the schedule, so I know how tough it is to make this happen, but I hope there are more Asian tournaments coming up. You see China has three ATP tournaments and I hope there are more big tournaments coming.

 

What are your thoughts on the state of Asian tennis in light of Li Na’s retirement? On the men’s side, you’re the only Asian player in the top 30.

I think the women’s side was much stronger in Asia, but ‘Lu-san’ (Taiwan’s Rendy Lu Yen-hsun) is always there and I can be the next top-10, top-five player and I hope we can all team together to make Asian tennis stronger. There are many things to do to make Asian tennis strong, but I think you need a couple of top players. Results like me reaching the US Open final help other players believe in themselves, that they can do it, so that’s a good thing. (Nishikori on Li Na: sport-asia.com/tennis-japans-nishikori-hopes-to-lead-asian-tennis-in-lis-wake/ )

 

Kimiko Date-Krumm is still playing on the WTA at the age of 43. Can you see yourself playing ATP tennis at 43?

It’s tough to imagine playing until 40, especially in men’s tennis. What she’s doing is incredible. She’s really fit and I know how tough she is. She’s so professional and intense; she practises hard and trains hard. She has a lot of passion, so I learn a lot of things from her.

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