The hopes of a nation rest on the slim shoulders of Kei Nishikori, who is bidding this weekend to become the first-ever Japanese to play in the singles final of a Grand Slam.
He outlasted Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka in five sets in the U.S. Open quarterfinals to become the first Japanese man in 81 years to reach the last four of a major tournament — and the first since Grand Slam events were opened in 1968 to allow professionals to compete with amateurs.
Now, just the minor obstacle of the world No. 1 Novak Djokovic stands between the 24 year-old and history.
“His fatigue may be at its peak but he is determined to ‘get stronger and stronger and reach the final,’ ” the daily Nikkan Sports said. “He is right in front of an untrodden realm.”
Nishikori’s father Kiyoshi, 57, told the Asahi Shimbun: “Kei tends to work a miracle by playing beyond his physical limits when he has a fixed goal to focus on.”
Shimane Prefecture, where he hails from, is also hoping that further success will help boost its profile — it currently promotes itself tongue-in-cheek as the “47th most famous prefecture in Japan.” Out of 47, that is. It’s only just got a Starbucks.
The first Japanese player to reach the semifinal of a major tournament was Ichiya Kumagae — in 1918 at the U.S. championship men’s singles.
Two years later, Kumagae became the first Japanese Olympic medalist in any sport when he lifted the men’s singles and doubles silver medals at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics.
At Wimbledon, Zenzo Shimizu made the last-four round in 1920 when the event pitted the previous year’s winner against challengers who had fought through a knockout tournament.
Japanese women have had more success in recent decades, with Kazuko Sawamatsu in the 1973 Australian Open semifinals and the evergreen Kimiko Date-Krumm in the last four of a major event each in 1994, 1995 and 1996.
The most recent male semifinalist the country has produced is Jiro Sato. He reached the stage five times — Roland Garros in 1931, Australia and Wimbledon in 1932, Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 1933.
But Sato, who was ranked as high as third in the world, killed himself in 1934 at the age of 26.
He was captain of the Japan team on its way to Europe for a Davis Cup match against Australia. He is believed to have thrown himself into the Strait of Malacca, leaving a few suicide notes in his cabin.
“Tennis is a war which lets people live,” he is reported to have said at the peak of his career.
Sato won 32 matches at Grand Slam events, a national record only broken by Nishikori at the 2014 U.S. Open.
Kumagae and Shimizu both held down responsible white collar jobs throughout their careers. Kumagae was based in New York as a Mitsubishi Bank employee.
His eldest son, Kazuo, now 86, told Japanese newspapers he remembered his father talking about the knock-on benefits for his employer.
“Being a strong tennis player will help advertise my company,” he said, according to his son.
“But when he talked about old times. it was about the Olympic silver medals. He always regretted that he could not get the gold.”