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Nishioka savors first career ATP title

by Joel Tansey

Staff Writer

At 40-30, Yoshihito Nishioka fired a second serve up the middle and watched as his opponent dumped a return into the net.

It was a routine point at an opportune time, with the error from Pierre-Hugues Herbert coming on Nishioka’s fifth championship point in the finals of the Shenzhen Open in China.

It was the young Japanese’s first ATP title and the importance of the occasion was evident in his reaction.

Immediately there was a primal scream, his raw emotion impossible to contain.

Then a fall, as Nishioka splayed his body onto the court and held his face in his hands. He appeared to be on the verge of tears as he raced to shake his opponent’s hand and began to bask in the glow of his accomplishment.

It was the type of reaction players normally reserve for a larger stage — Centre Court at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open’s Arthur Ashe Stadium. But to understand Nishioka’s display of emotion, it’s crucial to understand the road he traveled to get to that point.

In the spring of 2017 Nishioka looked poised to take the next step in his young career. Then age 21, the native of Mie Prefecture reached a career high of world No. 58 that March.

At Indian Wells, one of the sport’s premier tournaments outside of the four grand slams, Nishioka topped veterans Ivo Karlovic and Tomas Berdych to earn a place in the fourth round. There, he gave three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka all he could handle in a three-set thriller that the Swiss star took in a tiebreaker.

It all went wrong the next week in Miami.

Up 3-1 in the first set against Jack Sock, Nishioka slid to his left, stretched to get his racket on the ball, and tore his left ACL. He wouldn’t play another competitive match for eight months.

Already facing a disadvantage because of his short stature — Nishioka is just 170-cm tall — anything short of a complete recovery would seriously hurt him in the area where he most excels: quickness.

Speaking at a news conference on Monday at the Rakuten Open in Tokyo, Nishioka was candid when asked whether he ever doubted he could get back to this level.

“When I was injured and after surgery, I was just training how to walk and how to run,” Nishioka said.

“I was really afraid. My weapons are movement and footwork . . . it was very scary.”

Through that arduous recovery, the success of other Japanese players kept him motivated.

Nishioka noted Yuichi Sugita’s title last summer at the Antalya Open in Turkey and Taro Daniel’s Istanbul Open win earlier this year as having pushed him back toward the top 100.

“I wanted to get a trophy as well,” he said.

Nine months after his return, and after having struggled to rediscover the game that had made him one of the tour’s more promising young stars, Nishioka is back into the top 100 — he rose to No. 95 on Monday — and finally has that elusive first trophy.

What’s next on his to-do list? To get people to stop mistaking him for that other Japanese tennis player.

“Please remember my name,” he told the crowd in Shenzhen, smiling. “It’s not (Kei) Nishikori, I’m Nishioka.”