With Naomi Osaka enjoying a breakthrough campaign in 2018 and Kei Nishikori making a strong comeback from a career-threatening injury, the past season proved fruitful for emerging tennis powerhouse Japan.
Osaka started 2018 at No. 68 in the WTA rankings but experienced a dramatic rise to No. 4 — tying the record for the highest ranking by a Japanese player, male or female — in October.
She won the first title of her budding WTA career at the BNP Paribas Open in March, defeating former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova and current No. 1 Simona Halep along the way. Then just days later at the Miami Open, she handed Serena Williams, another former world No. 1 and her childhood idol, a straight-sets loss in their first meeting.
“At the beginning of the season I didn’t have confidence in myself, but now (my confidence is) stable,” said Osaka, who stands 180 cm and can wind her serve up to speeds over 200 kph.
When the 21-year-old was stunned on clay by Madison Keys in the third round of the French Open in June, she said she was told by numerous people, including her German coach Sascha Bajin, not to rely too heavily on her power and engage in extended rallies.
She took the advice and the ensuing transformation helped her achieve results, the highlight coming in September when she beat Williams in the U.S. Open women’s final to claim the first Grand Slam singles title by a Japanese player. Bajin also profited, as he was named WTA’s Coach of the Year after the season.
“I’m aiming to be consistent. Whether it be grass or clay, no matter what event, I want to be able to play good tennis,” Osaka said.
The breakout star of 2018 received $3.8 million in prize money from the U.S. Open, more than doubling her career on-court earnings.
Her aggressive game and now-trademark reserved nature sent her off-court popularity skyrocketing. Her impressive endorsement portfolio now includes major brands such as Adidas, Citizen, Nissin, Shiseido, Yonex, and Nissan, with the value of some of the deals breaking new sports marketing ground for women.
Meanwhile, for different reasons, Nishikori also experienced a career-defining year.
Nishikori, the only Japanese male to reach the world’s top four, overcame a five-month absence from the court that stretched back to last season to return to action in January.
He reflected on the moment he felt a sharp pain in his right wrist in August of 2017, saying, “Honestly, I thought it was over.” He opted not to have surgery, but with risk of recurrence, Nishikori said his biggest enemy was fear.
He proved he was well on the road to recovery when he captured a Challenger Tour title in Dallas in February, but in the process of his return to form he fell to as low as No. 39 in the ATP rankings in April.
The 28-year-old competed in the Madrid Open in May as an unseeded player, and he said at the time his lowly position has upside as hitting rock bottom means “there’s nowhere to go but up.”
In September, Osaka and Nishikori, both in the stable of sports management giant IMG, reached the U.S. Open semifinals, becoming the first Japanese duo to reach the semis of a Grand Slam tournament.
Nishikori said he felt the “switch-on moment” when he played a near error-free match against Maximilian Marterer in the first round at Flushing Meadows. “Not only am I back in the game, I’m better in some ways. I want to raise my level,” he said.
Though Nishikori lost to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, he reveled in his countrywoman’s success, reaching out to Osaka with a congratulatory “#proud” tweet along with a video of her lifting the trophy.
Nishikori ended the season having ascended to the No. 9 spot. Even though he was unable to win an ATP Tour title, he made the finals of three tournaments — the Monte-Carlo Masters, Rakuten Japan Open and Erste Bank Open.
Last month, Nishikori beat Roger Federer at the ATP Finals in London, where he qualified as a replacement for injured Argentine Juan Martin del Potro. He failed to advance after losing twice in the group stage after his victory over the legendary Swiss.
Nishikori said he played with no pressure this season but does not expect it to be the same next year.
On Nov. 25, Osaka and Nishikori played an exhibition in Nagoya, where Osaka described Nishikori as “mysterious” in a pregame press conference. “No one on the tour ever says anything bad about him. I want to be like him,” she said.
Outside of Japan’s big two, singles success was scarce, but another Japanese superstar continued to build upon his historic Grand Slam career.
In 2018, 34-year-old Shingo Kunieda maintained his grip on the men’s wheelchair singles world No. 1 ranking by winning his ninth Australian Open and his seventh French Open title while adding a run to the final at the U.S. Open.