With just a single session of grass court tennis under his belt, and that coming when he was not even a teenager, 16-year-old Shintaro Mochizuki arrived in England in June last year for the grass season.
Weeks later, he was a Wimbledon champion.
The junior grand slam triumph — the first by a Japanese junior in singles since 1969 — surprised many, including Mochizuki himself.
After the finals, "I was confused when I was holding my trophy. 'Did I really win Wimbledon?'" he said in a recent interview.
Then again, Mochizuki, now 17, is making a habit of producing surprises and defying expectations, and that begins at the very foundation of his unique brand of tennis.
At a shade over 175 centimeters tall, you expect the Kawasaki native to be a baseliner who makes up for a lack of height with powerful groundstrokes. You expect to be able to lazily compare his playing style with compatriot Kei Nishikori. You expect that he might be molding his game after other undersized players who succeeded against bigger, more powerful opponents, like a Lleyton Hewitt or an Andre Agassi.
Instead, it's at the net where Mochizuki separates himself from his peers.
"When I saw him the first time in Japan, I was surprised at his backhand high volley at that age," said coach Natsuo Yamanaka, who has been working with Mochizuki for the past five years at the IMG Academy in Florida, which also produced Nishikori and a host of other top pros. "His net play is very natural."
Yamanaka points to the success of tennis' Big Three — Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal — and their "amazing" groundstrokes. "(Mochizuki's) groundstrokes are not like those players.'"
Instead, Team Mochizuki is looking at former world No. 8 Radek Stepanek and 2001 Australian Open finalist Arnaud Clement as players to emulate.
"It's difficult to go the same way (as the Big Three) so we're trying a totally different way," Yamanaka said.
Recognizing that he needs to get stronger to compete at the professional level — he had a mixed 4-6 record on the ITF Tour in 2020 before the coronavirus shut down competitive tennis — Mochizuki says he has been using his time away from the weekly grind of the tour to improve his fitness.
"The gym is closed but I've been doing a lot of fitness with my fitness coach. I've been doing some sprints and track (workouts) a lot too," he said. "Of course I practice a lot, every day, but I'm more focused on fitness stuff than usual."
But there's no hiding his disappointment over the cancellation of Wimbledon, where he would have had a chance to defend his junior title and compete in qualifying for the main draw, as is customary for the prior year's junior champion.
"I was so excited to play in London again this year," he said of tennis’ showcase event, which would have wrapped up this weekend.
Mochizuki was invited to the IMG academy when he was a quiet preteen as part of the Masaaki Morita Fund, a program launched by the former Sony Corp. executive that also sponsored Nishikori's enrollment at the academy.
"I didn't speak any English at all and I was more scared than nervous," he said, laughing about how he was afraid of Americans at first. "But I got through it."
Yamanaka, who has coached at the academy for 15 years, says Mochizuki was quite raw when he first arrived.
"At the beginning he was at such a low level compared to other American players, European players," he recalled.
But the academy saw a player with a lot of heart and a will to improve. At the beginning he would lose constantly, "but he never put his head down," the coach said.
After a loss, “he'd come to the court, at 7 in the morning, and practice. He's kind of crazy," Yamanaka said.
Now, with few players left around the academy due to the pandemic and being restricted from leaving the facility to protect against the virus, Mochizuki admits to feelings of boredom, although he has used his spare time to catch up on Japanese shows and occasionally his coach's wife makes him tonkatsu, his favorite food.
"I want to go back to Japan for food and my family," he said, laughing. "But for tennis I think I should stay here."
After players win a junior grand slam, it's natural to wonder whether they have the potential to win one in the senior ranks. Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg and Federer are among those who have backed up junior Wimbledon titles with men’s singles titles.
But Yamanaka says he simply doesn't know how Mochizuki's career will play out because of his unique skillset.
"(For most players) maybe you can say they can go to the top 10, top 50, top 100," he said.
"But for him, we can't say … because his tennis is very, very, very different compared to others. Maybe he can be top 10, maybe he can finish maybe 500, or 600. I feel his tennis is yes or no."
One thing that's clear is that Mochizuki will give it his best shot either way.
And he may just continue to surprise.
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