Yoshihito Nishioka didn’t mince words when asked about his goals for the 2020 tennis season.
“My first goal is making the Olympics,” he told The Japan Times last week. “To play in the Olympics in my home country … I don’t want to miss it.”
In a sport where the calendar revolves around the four Grand Slams and their multimillion-dollar purses, Nishioka’s target might seem a little unconventional, even with the allure of an Olympics on home soil.
But he’s also not alone.
Go Soeda, who teamed up with Nishioka at January’s ATP Cup and helped bring the Kei Nishikori-less Japanese team to the cusp of the knockout round, also has an eye toward the Tokyo Games. The 35-year-old represented Japan at the 2012 London Olympics and is playing his best tennis in years, having moved his ranking from a low of No. 234 at the end of 2018 to the cusp of the top 100.
Soeda cited improvements with his serve and footwork as reasons behind his rise up the rankings. His success at the ATP Cup — he won his first two singles matches before succumbing to world No. 12 Roberto Bautista Agut — gave him a further shot of confidence to kick off his season.
“I felt a lot of pressure to represent my country,” he said in an interview last week.
“It was a great experience and I got a lot of confidence from the ATP Cup.”
Nishioka and Soeda are part of a group of male Japanese players looking for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be an Olympian on home soil.
Behind Nishikori — currently out with an elbow injury but a virtual lock for the 2020 Games if he can get healthy — Nishioka, Soeda, Yuichi Sugita, Taro Daniel and Yasutaka Uchiyama are all in the top 100, or just outside of it, and battling to represent Japan at Ariake Coliseum.
“Usually for a tennis player, the Olympics aren’t that big,” Nishioka said. But in Japan, the Olympics can go a long way toward raising a player’s profile, he noted, and the games would give him a great chance to gain new fans.
Qualification will be a tall order as only the top 56 players on the ATP rankings as of June 8 will receive direct acceptance into the singles draw, with eight other spots allotted by the International Tennis Federation for the 64-player tournament.
None are currently ranked that high, but due to the maximum allotment of four players per country, No. 64 Nishioka is a strong contender to make the cut. Ten French players are ranked ahead of the Mie Prefecture native, for example, effectively putting Nishioka No. 58 on the Olympic pecking order. Seven Spanish players held top 60 rankings as of Monday, moving Nishioka up another handful of spots. A smattering of players are also bound to skip the tournament due to injury or in order to focus on the North American hard court season, meaning Nishioka has a good chance to secure a spot with a decent spring.
The road to Tokyo 2020 is a bit steeper for the rest of Japan’s hopefuls.
Sugita (No. 87), Uchiyama (97), Daniel (105) and Soeda (112) all have work to do this spring in order to improve their chances. And, in a twist for what both Soeda and Nishioka called a close, supportive group on tour, they’ll all be fighting to leapfrog each other to ensure they are the next Japanese player in the line of succession.
The competition among them “is a good thing for me,” Soeda said, adding that it pushes him to improve. “I need some rivals among Japanese players. … We are friends but it’s a good situation for me.”
As the youngest in that group, the 24-year-old Nishioka was quick to point out that he has learned a lot from his veteran compatriots, including his ATP Cup teammate Soeda.
“He’s very knowledgeable, very kind, very stoic. I can learn a lot from him,” Nishioka said.
“(Japanese players) have to battle but I think it’s great for us. We are friends but good rivals.”