Kei Nishikori was born in Japan, Matsue (Shimane Prefecture), in December 29 1989. Son of Kiyoshi and Eri, an engineer and a piano teacher respectively, Kei started playing tennis at the age of five in his hometown, where he early stood out for his high quality and competitiveness. In 2001, Kei Nishikori became the fifth player in history to win the three most important tennis championships in Japan for children under twelve.
Seeing how the kid evolved, his parents thought of taking him abroad, in order to make him develop his tennis skills to a level hardly reachable in Japan. It could be said that the Japanese saying wakon-yôsai, ‘Japanese spirit, western technique’ applies here.
The opportunity came in 2003, when young Nishikori was designated a certified player of Masaaki Morita Tennis Fund. This allowed him to go to the USA to start his training there and take the path to the tennis firmament. Along with his family, a thirteen-year-old Kei moved to Bradenton (Florida) to join the IMG Bollettieri Academy, fully sponsored by Morita Fund. In this academy he went on expanding his talent, at the same time that he attended regular school. He began to play the junior world circuit and turned professional playing the Tokyo ATP Open in 2007. The following year in 2008, being only eighteen years old, Nishikori entered the Top 100 of the world ranking.
In 2009 an unfortunate injury in his right elbow put him out of competition from April to February 2010, when he could go back to the tour after surgery and a hard recovery.
But his comeback was stunning. In 2011 he broke the historic record of ATP Ranking (Open Era) for a Japanese player, ascending to the 30th position after reaching the Shanghai Masters semifinal. In 2012 he became the first Japanese to win the Tokyo ATP Open. In 2013 he played as the leader of the Davis Cup national team, taking Japan to the World Group.
In 2014 he entered the ATP Top Ten, with his second win at the Tokyo ATP Open, his victory at the Barcelona ATP Open and his participation in the Madrid Masters final.
From the year 2014, in which he took the 5th place in the ranking, Kei Nishikori has remained uninterruptedly in the Top Ten ATP, reaching his best position at the beginning of 2017 being number 4 of the world.
At the Rio 2016 Olympic Games he won the bronze medal, beating Rafael Nadal. Due to this, he became the second Japanese to win an Olympic tennis medal, almost one hundred years after Ichiya ‘Ichy’ Kumagae (1890) won the first Olympic medal in history for a Japanese athlete in Antwerp 1920.
2017 is being ambivalent for Nishikori. With a good start, in which he reached the final of the ATP 250 Brisbane, he was defeated by Roger Federer in round 16 of the Australian Open and by Jack Sock (number 15 ATP) in the quarterfinals of the Miami Open . He has been suffering from wrist injure recently, but this hasn´t prevented him from reaching 2017 Geneva´s semifinals. What will happen for the rest of the season remains a mystery.
The ‘Emperor’ of tennis
For any tennis follower, to watch Kei Nishikori playing is simply awesome.
Gabe Jaramillo, a renowned trainer who worked with some of the best tennis players ever and also tutored him just after joining IMG Bolletieri Academy, saw the extraordinary talent of the Japanese when he was only eleven and was postulating for Masaaki Morita Tennis Fund. Jaramillo appreciated his lack of fear on the way he played and his halo of confidence. Kei Nishikori was a natural champion, because a champion cannot be made. At the beginning it was critical to show the young Kei how much they stood by him, so as to make him display all virtues which would lead him to excel and to grow his love for tennis.
His tennis is fast and elegant, perfect technique, extraordinary footwork, great head racket speed; he fights every single point whatever the ball is, with any stroke possible, and he has a permanent winning focus.
Today, at his twenty seven, Kei Nishikori is a member of the world tennis elite and has become a superstar. He was included in the 2016 Forbes List of the Asian ‘30 Under 30’, and he is one of the five highest paid tennis players of the planet, along with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
He has his own app, Kei Nishikori (here), with photos, videos and chats to follow him and interact with his fans all over the world. It was Japanese’s no 1 downloaded app in the Japanese Itunes store last year.
Japan, Kei Nishikori and ‘Project 45’
Kei Nishikori is already distinguished for breaking the ‘walls’ that got away the Japanese from tennis glory. And he is doing such with records. When he played the semi-finals of the Shanghai Masters 2011 and reached the 30th position of the world ranking, he overcame Shuzo Matsuoka, who had occupied the 46th position in 1992.
Due to this Kei Nishikori was called ‘Project 45’, because first it was about surpassing the 46 ranking of Shuzo Matsuoka. This challenge overwhelmed him, so when he finally got it, he felt completely relieved.
Shuzo Matsuoka is a recognized sportsman in Japan and nowadays a TV star, thanks to his sympathy and his great charisma. Matsuoka’s triumphs in the 1990’s include his victory over Pete Sampras in the quarter-finals of Canada Masters 1991 and his quarter-final position in Wimbledon 1995. Since 1998 he runs the Shuzo Challenge, an annual tennis campus for young players sponsored by the Japan Tennis Association, which Kei Nishikori attended himself.
There is another curious historical precedent of the Japanese tennis in Jiro Sato, the only tennis player who has surpassed Kei Nishikori’s ranking. In 1933, Jiro Sato defeated the legendary Fred Perry in a French tournament and was placed in number 3 of the worldwide classification. He had an unexpected and tragic end, as he committed suicide by throwing himself off the ship that was taking him to Australia for the Davis Cup of 1934. His farewell letter highlighted the pressure he was subjected to by the Japan National Tennis Association in order to win tournaments, without rest between one and another.
Women’s tennis has its best reference in Kimiko Date, a professional player since 1989, who reached the 4th place in the WTA Ranking in 1995.
Undoubtedly, Kei Nishikori represents now the forefront of Japanese tennis, and he is a source of inspiration for all young tennis players in Japan.
The essential support of Masaaki Morita
Kei Nishikori keeps on training at the same IMG Academy, now with his coaches Dante Bottini and Michael Chang, and lives in the same town of Bradenton in Florida.
IMG Academy Bollettieri is one of the best places in the world for the forge of professional tennis players, having hosted other great champions like Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova.
The Masaaki Morita Tennis Fund was raised by Masaaki Morita, younger brother of Akio Morita, founder of Sony. Masaaki-san was elected President of the National Association of Japanese Tennis in 2000 and designated Honorary President in 2012.
The appointment of Kei Nishikori as a tennis player of Masaaki Morita Tennis Fund changed his life in a decisive way, making the dream possible. He entered a development program in the United States, focused on making him a World Number 1 and a superstar, and also a fair ambassador of Japan around the world.
It is perfectly understandable that Kei Nishikori, in his best moment ever, focuses all his efforts on his professional career to take it to the maximum. Mainly for this reason, today it is impossible for him to live in Japan, where his fame and the way the fan phenomenon is felt there are incompatible with the calm and serenity required for his training and well-being.
However, he would be thinking of returning to Japan when retirement comes. Interviewed by The Telegraph in March 2016, Kei said, ‘I feel more comfortable in Florida because no one is watching over me, so I can concentrate and train hard. But when I retire, I will surely return to Japan, where I feel happier and my friends, my family and everyone are in Japan.’
Now, our big question for Kei Nishikori is whether he foresees the idea of developing projects to promote tennis in his native country, either by himself or in collaboration with other institutions such as Masaaki Morita Tennis Fund itself.
How nice would be to see him boost these kind of projects, for instance, setting up a tennis academy in the style of Rafa Nadal Academy in Spain. Thereby, young talents of Japanese tennis could develop in the same Japan, joining the culture and Japanese values to the game.
In any case, in a few days Kei Nishikori will visit Spain to play the Mutua Madrid Open 2017. We wish him the best and we will go to see him to vibrate with his wonderful tennis.
Advice: Owners of photographs shown here have licensed Japan´s Eye to use them for this editorial purpose.