More Sports / Tennis

Rising star Nishioka stepping out of Nishikori's shadow

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

There’s absolutely no doubt that the current rise in popularity of Japanese tennis stemmed from Kei Nishikori, whose name is now synonymous with the sport in this country.

Youngster Yoshihito Nishioka, Nishikori’s compatriot, fully agrees and is pleased that tennis is gaining attention in Japan.

“Ninety percent of it has come from Nishikori. Maybe it’s not an overstatement to say 100 percent,” Nishioka told The Japan Times in a recent exclusive interview just days before the Japan Open in Tokyo, where he was eliminated in the first round. “But no matter how it happens, I’m just glad that our game is getting attention.”

Led by Nishikori, who is currently ranked No. 4 in the world, a total of four Japanese players are in the top 100 of the ATP rankings, which is promising for the future of the nation’s tennis. Nishioka, who helped Japan remain in the World Group of the Davis Cup with a victory over Ukraine last month, is at No. 98 now.

The 21-year-old Nishioka has often been compared to Nishikori because Nishioka took the same route as the elder player. Both trained at IMG Academy in the United States with the benefit of scholarships from the Masaaki Morita Tennis Foundation (Morita received the 2017 Golden Achievement Award from the International Tennis Federation and International Tennis Hall of Fame during the Japan Open) as teenagers.

Nishioka, whose father runs a tennis school in his hometown of Tsu, Mie Prefecture, first picked up a tennis racket at the age of 4 and has devoted his life to the sport ever since. But he admitted that his time at IMG Academy, from the age of 14 until he turned pro at 18 in 2014, was one of the most significant factors in making him a growing international prospect.

Nishioka said that he benefited from the rich environment at IMG Academy. But he didn’t just mean things like the facilities and the numbers of courts. He means he was able to practice with so many different types of players from all around the world at the private boarding school in Bradenton, Florida, which has seen as a who’s who of elite players, including Andre Agassi, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, pass through.

“It’s a special place,” Nishioka said. “There’s so many players there. Professional players come, too. Because you have so many there, you can practice with different players every day, losing a lot and winning a lot.”

Nishioka said that he took to the court with such notable players as Tommy Haas (Germany), Filip Krajinovic (Serbia) and Nishikori among many others.

Now Nishioka is trying to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. Earlier this year, he was mentioned in the ATP’s “Next Generation” campaign, which introduces rising players aged 21 or younger on the World Tour.

Nishioka, who advanced to the second round of the U.S. Open and rose to a career-high No. 85 after August’s Atlanta Open, said with a laugh that some fans had previously talked to him thinking he was Nishikori at tournaments overseas, but that it doesn’t happen as much now.

“There have been more foreign fans that call my name and ask for autographs lately, and I’ve been glad to see that,” he smiled. “Of course I’ve made the top 100 in the rankings and that has helped. I’m happy that I’m gradually getting recognized.”

And likewise, he feels that the “next Nishikori” label has been fading as he continues his own ascent.

Nishioka, a 170-cm left-hander, said that few around him believed he could become a top-150 player when he turned pro in 2014 because of his size disadvantage, which leads to a shortage of power on the court.

It didn’t discourage him, however. Nishioka says he is hard-nosed and that those low assessments actually lit a fire in his heart.

“I wanted to prove them wrong,” said Nishioka, who captured the gold medal in the men’s singles competition at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, two years ago. “And to be honest, I thought that I could do it. I believed I could do it.”

Having an impertinent streak is essential to being a competitive athlete, but at the same time, an athlete has to be able to control his or her emotions, too. That’s one of the things Nishioka knows he has to manage going forward.

Nishioka said that his competitive mind-set appears even during practices, not only in games. He can’t forgive himself if he makes a mistake, which leads to a lack of self-control.

He revealed that he has read some books on brain science and sports psychology, but that a conversation with his mother, Kimie, during a slump he had earlier this year also helped him to manage his mentality.

Nishioka said that he struggled around the time of the French Open, but his mother advised him to try a different mental approach and after that he came through the other side.

My mother told me, ‘You lose when you lose, and you win when you can,’ ” Nishioka said. “Then I started playing not dwelling on winning too much and thinking like it is what it is, even when I couldn’t earn points. And it felt very good. I’ve been able to play aggressively in important situations and play in a more relaxed fashion.”

But he will have to be ready to take on the best players in the world in order to climb the rankings from now on. Technically, the two-handed backhand player acknowledges that he has to improve on his serves, volleys, and being able to play closer to the net more.

Nishioka said IMG founder Nick Bollettieri told him to model his game after former No. 1 player Marcelo Rios, because the Chilean was short and left-handed as well.

Asked if he eventually wants to lead Japanese tennis like Nishikori is currently doing, Nishioka quickly responded, “No doubt.”

“And my dream is to win a Grand Slam,” he said. “I know I’ll eventually play against Nishikori. I want to be like a presence like him. I want to even do better than he has done.”

Nishioka, who wants to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, is scheduled to compete at a Challengers tourney in China later this month and a few Challengers in Japan over the remainder of the year.