The Asian reporter. (Portland, Or.) 1991-current, September 15, 2014, Page Page 8, Image 8

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September 15, 2014
At 14, Nishikori began path to the U.S. Open final
By Howard Fendrich
The Associated Press
EW YORK — Kei Nishikori’s
journey to the U.S. Open final
began a decade ago, when he was
spotted as a teen at a tryout in Japan and
invited to move to Florida to attend a
tennis academy.
Nishikori was among the first
beneficiaries of a project to improve
Japanese tennis funded by former Sony
executive Masaaki Morita.
“Kei was just 14, and he didn’t speak a
word of English,” said Nick Bollettieri, a
member of the International Tennis Hall
of Fame who coached players such as
Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier,
and Monica Seles. “He was gifted. Great
speed. Great eyes.”
As Nishikori worked his way up the
world rankings after turning professional
in 2007, he became so well-known back
home that it seemed less distracting to
stay in Florida. On the rare occasions he
plays in Japan, tournaments sell out
within hours.
Now that he’s the first man from Asia to
make it to the final of a Grand Slam singles
tournament, his profile — and that of his
sport — figures to grow exponentially in
his home country. Even though he hasn’t
lived there for years, the nation was
watching as he headed into the final
against Marin Cilic.
“Even from 17, 18, from when he won his
first title, it’s been sometimes even a bit
over-the-top, maybe all a bit too early,”
said Nishikori’s agent, Olivier Van
“They are so intrigued by their heroes
that they want to know everything,” Van
Lindonk said. “I’ve heard so many
questions about: When did he eat? When
did he go to bed?”
Nishikori’s surprising 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (4),
6-3 victory over No. 1-ranked and seven-
time major champion Novak Djokovic in
the U.S. Open semifinals began at about
1:00am on a Sunday in Japan, but people
across the country stayed awake to keep
When the match ended, Nishikori told
the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium during
an on-court interview: “I hope it’s big news
AP Photo/Koji Sasahara
AP Photo/Mike Groll
in Japan. ... I feel the support from Japan.
... It’s 4 o’clock in the morning, but I hope a
lot of people watched it.”
They did. As soon as he checked his
phone, Nishikori found 20 messages from
folks in Japan, despite the hour. Hundreds
of fans celebrated after following along on
television at a hotel in Nishikori’s
hometown of Matsue, a sleepy town with a
population of less than 200,000.
It was the lead story on Sunday morning
television news programs, and the mass
circulation Asahi Shimbun issued a
special online edition touting Nishikori’s
“This is easily the biggest news in the
history of Japanese tennis,” said Jun
Kamiwazumi, a former member of Japan’s
Davis Cup team that reached the third
round at the 1973 U.S. Open. “This will
Nishikori (top photo) of Japan returns a shot against
Marin Cilic of Croatia during the championship match
at the 2014 U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York.
Cilic won the championship, beating Nishikori 6-3,
6-3, 6-3. Kei’s journey to the U.S. Open final began a
decade ago, when he was spotted as a teen at a tryout
in Japan and invited to move to Florida to attend a
tennis academy. Pictured below are workers of Ja-
pan’s leading instant noodle producer, Nissin Food
Products Co., a sponsor of Nishikori, watching the
live broadcast of the championship game.
have a huge impact on the sport here, and I
expect many young children will be
inspired to emulate him.”
Others such as Bollettieri and Djokovic
echoed that opinion.
“This is definitely huge for Japan. It’s a
big country, over 100 million people. This
can definitely be a great encouragement
for tennis in that country,” said Djokovic,
who is from Serbia. “He’s been around for
the last couple of years. He’s been making
a lot of success. But playing [in the] finals
of a Grand Slam … [that] is definitely
something different.”
It also will make Nishikori even more
money than the $10 million in endorse-
ments he reportedly already earns from
sponsors such as clothing company Uniqlo,
food company Nissin, and sports equip-
ment company Wilson.
Nishikori, the first man from Japan to be
ranked in the ATP’s top 10, has existing
contracts that include escalator clauses
providing extra money for certain
accomplishments, such as reaching a
Grand Slam final.
It adds up to a far bigger take than his
on-court prize money, which was less than
$2 million this season entering the U.S.
But what matters more to the 24-year-
old Nishikori, by the sound of it, is the
impact he can have in his native country.
“I hope more kids start playing tennis,”
he said. “U.S. has a lot of respect for the
sports, but not as much in Japan. I hope I
can make a little bit difference.”
“He’s a hero there. He’s been a hero there
for a while. Ever since he hit the top 20, it’s
been crazy. But we’re getting to another
level now,” said Van Lindonk, the agent.
“You become very popular when you win.”
Associated Press writer Jim Armstrong
in Tokyo contributed to this report.
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