NEW 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 has 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 is watching as he heads into Monday’s final against Marin Cilic.
Neither player is currently ranked in the top 10 and neither has previously played in a major final, let alone won one.
“If somebody told you ‘a Nishikori-Cilic final at the U.S. Open,’ three weeks ago, you would look at them like they don’t know what they’re talking about,” said 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, Cilic’s coach. “But it’s happening on Monday.”
Nishikori went into the U.S. Open with a reputation for injury issues. As recently as three weeks ago, he was forced to hit shots while seated at practice, because he couldn’t run after having a cyst removed from the bottom of his right foot in August.
“I tried to work on my body a lot this year,” said Nishikori, who has won five of seven previous matches against Cilic. “Even last year, too.”
Nishikori’s surprising 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3 victory over No. 1-ranked and seven-time major champion Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open semifinals began at about 1 a.m. Sunday in Japan, but people across the country stayed awake to keep track.
When the match ended, Nishikori told the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium during an on-court interview: “I hope it’s big news 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 in Shimane Prefecture with a population of less than 200,000.
It was the lead story on Sunday morning TV news programs, and the Asahi Shimbun issued a special online edition touting Nishikori’s success.
“This is easily the biggest news in the history of Japanese tennis,” said Jun Kamiwazumi, a former member of Japan’s Davis Cup team who reached the third round at the 1973 U.S. Open. “This will 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 finals of a Grand Slam and now fighting for a title is definitely something different.”
It also will make Nishikori even more money than the $10 million in endorsements he reportedly already earns from sponsors such as clothing company Uniqlo, food company Nissin, and sports equipment 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. Open.
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 sport, but not as much in Japan. I hope I can make a little bit difference.”
Given the attention Nishikori is getting, a championship in New York would seem to be certain to reverberate in Tokyo.
“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.”