Kei Nishikori: Project 45 No Longer A Secret

Kei Nishikori, the youngest player in the Top 100, is the face of tennis in Japan, a country of 127 million people. He is also poised to become one of the ATP's biggest stars.

The Grand Pacific Le Daiba, situated on Daiba Island with majestic views of Tokyo Bay, welcomes celebrities, businessmen and tourists throughout the year but rarely have guests at the 30-storey luxury hotel found themselves as extras in a real life Truman Show broadcast to millions across Asia. Kei Nishikori has learned to live with extraordinary media attention since becoming the country's first ATP titlist in 16 years. But at the AIG Japan Open Tennis Championships in September, his celebrity reached new levels.

From the moment the hotel lift doors opened and Japan's new hero glided across the marble lobby, camera crews recorded his every move. Courtesy cars ferried him past billboards adorned with his face to and from the tournament site, where the clamor for footage and quotes was just as fierce. Each of his press conferences was standing room only and there were 24 requests for one-on-one interviews, sponsor functions and exhibition matches to attend.

"Every player that competes at their home tournament gets a lot of media attention, but the attention Kei received at Tokyo in September had never been witnessed in Japan before," explained his manager Olivier Van Lindonk of IMG, the sports, entertainment and media company. "Kei received the kind of media attention that is reserved for Grand Slam champions at Wimbledon."

Nishikori carried it all off with a smile, humor and patience that arguably only Boris Becker experienced as a 17 year old when he captured the 1985 Wimbledon title. In the space of 11 months he has learnt to live with and enjoy the exposure.

Five years have passed since an introverted, polite 13 year old left his parents in Shimane, a mountainous prefecture located in the Chugoku region on Honshu island, fuelled only by the language of tennis to pursue his dream at one of the biggest sports academies in the world. Kiyoshi Nishikori, an engineer, and his mother Eri, a piano teacher, had given their son Kei his first tennis racquet at the age of five and watched him develop a heaven sent talent for the game.

The wide-eyed child and his older sister Reina had attended camps led by Japan's former ATP pro Shuzo Matsuoka and quickly cloned the shots of his favorite players, such as Roger Federer. The Japanese Tennis Association had ear-marked Nishikori for success and it was the financial support of sports fan Masaaki Morita, a member of the founding family and former Sony Life Insurance CEO, that landed the teenager on the doorstep of Nick Bollettieri's academy in Bradenton, Florida.

"When I was 12, I was picked through a Bollettieri selection process in Tokyo," recalled Nishikori. "I first went on a three-week trial and I enjoyed it very much. I played tennis all the time – alongside around 800 other children – and although it was hard work, the top players that train at the Academy really showed me just how hard I needed to work to become a professional player."

Gabe Jaramillo, who has worked as Director of Tennis and Head Coach at the IMG/Bollettieri Tennis Academy since 1981, remembers, "Kei showed himself as a player of great potential. The trial also showed the coaches at the Academy that he could compete in different situations and adjust to the American lifestyle. His forehand was explosive, but his volleying was poor and his service technique was that of a beginner."

Interest in professional tennis had dwindled in Japan soon after Matsuoka had retired from professional tennis in April 1998 with one ATP title at Seoul in 1992 to his name. "The moment I retired, I set up tennis camps for children aged 10-18 with the objective of helping young Asians to attain a Top 100 ranking," said Matsuoka, who is delighted that his camps and the establishment of the Morita Tennis Fund have inspired a new generation of young players to pursue a career on the ATP circuit.

"I have always aimed to break Shuzo's career-high ranking of No. 46," admitted Nishikori. "When I moved to Bradenton in 2004, even though I couldn't speak a word of English, I didn't feel homesick. I was too busy developing my game. I have always been blessed with a powerful forehand but had to work on my service motion and footwork around the court. I would make too many mistakes in my attempts to hit winners off every stroke."

Jaramillo added: "As we didn't have any Japanese coaches or translators we hired someone who Kei already knew for the first couple of years to ensure that his transition was trouble free. We enrolled him at a school, where they teach English as a second language.

"The Academy's coaches found it very difficult to get Kei to open up initially. He didn't have any confidence, his mind was low key and he didn't give us much feedback, but we found he liked straight forward coaching techniques. The first couple of years we kept a tight schedule and set to work on Kei's service and throwing motion, asking him to throw hundreds of American footballs and baseballs in order to develop the basics."

Brought up in a polite and respectful Japanese society, Nishikori found it difficult when he watched juniors screaming and shouting after every point. "In the second year, when I travelled around Florida more and more I did pine for home," Nishikori admitted. His confidence sometimes took a hit, as his form dropped and he struggled to mix with players from 132 different countries at the Academy.

But Jaramillo's confidence in Nishikori was always strong. "Once, we asked him to play against one of our top juniors, Phillip Bester, at 6 p.m. one night," he said. "We advertised the match across the Academy on every available door, lamp post and notice board. Kei didn't want to play, but turned up and thrashed Phillip. From that moment on he started to believe in himself."

One of the first goals coaches had asked him to attain was to compete at the Roland Garros junior championship, on his favored clay surface. Every morning – at his accommodation on the 200-acre sports Academy – he read his goal on a Post-It note stuck to his bathroom mirror. By May 2006, he was given approval to travel to Paris, where he seized his chance by partnering Argentine Emiliano Massa to the doubles title but made a quarterfinal exit in singles due to a stomach injury.

"While many teenagers [aged 12 to 16] come to the Academy with plenty of talent, many never work hard enough to realise their potential," admits Jaramillo, who has worked with the likes of Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Pete Sampras during his career. "From day one, Kei was never like that. If we asked him to turn up at 7 a.m. for a training session on the court, he would be there at 6:45 a.m. ensuring his racquets were gripped correctly and his shoelaces tied tightly. That way we were hitting balls bang on 7 a.m."

Jaramillo has since assembled a 14-man team involved in Nishikori's career. He said: "Nick Bollettieri is in charge of strokes, Red Ayme for daily practices, Glenn Weiner as his traveling coach, Sybil Ayme, his yoga teacher, Dr. Angus Mugford for mental conditioning, Steve Shembaum for media training, Sally Parsonage is in charge of nutrition, Kevin Murdock for physiotherapy, agents van Lindonk and Ben Crandell, Sato Nakajima liaison with the family, Juan Herrera biomechanics and Yutaka Nakamura physical conditioning."

As a result Nishikori has been given the perfect platform to realize his goals. He has developed into an archetypical Academy player showcasing aggressive baseline play with accurate placement by taking the ball early and coming to the net to finish the point.

"On an average day, Kei often stretches and does weights work, followed by the Bollettieri system or the farm system: on-court work with the most promising juniors – such as Phillip Krajinovic, Jordan Cox, Devin Britton, German Sanchez – in the morning," said Jaramillo. "After lunch he plays sets against the likes of Tommy Haas, Xavier Malisse, Max Mirnyi, Radek Stepanek and other members of the elite group. By the end of the day, he will have spent 3-4 hours on court."

Nishikori made his ATP debut at Los Angeles in July 2007 and advanced to his maiden quarterfinal at Indianapolis (l. to Tursunov) the following week. He finished the year with a 3-5 record and ranked No. 286 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings. Under the guidance of former ATP pro Weiner, his travelling coach since December 2007, Nishikori cemented his plans for 2008 "when my goal had been to break into the Top 100 and win some Challengers."

Two weeks after losing in the third round of qualification for an ATP Challenger circuit event at Dallas, Texas, in late January, Nishikori freely admitted: "My confidence was shot, but my coaches told me I must go to Delray Beach. It will be a week I will never forget." Jamarillo added, "He was thinking of ways to get out of playing. He wanted to compete at a $10,000 ITF Futures tournament, but we urged him to reconsider as it was very important he competed."

Nishikori arrived at the Delray Beach Stadium and Tennis Center with nothing to lose. As a result he played without inhibition, storming through three matches in qualifying, coming back from a set down in three of his five main draw matches – including saving four match points against No. 3 seed Sam Querrey in the semifinals – before beating World No. 12 James Blake 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 to become the first Japanese player to win a title since Matsuoka in 1992. At 18 years, one month and 19 days old, Nishikori was the youngest player to win an ATP title since Lleyton Hewitt (16 years, 10 months, 18 days) in Adelaide on January 11, 1998.

Upon his return to Bradenton, Jaramillo smiled and told him "You're no longer a Futures player but an ATP player." He had improved 113 places to No. 131 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings, his profile had soared and Nishikori had become the centerpiece of Project 45, which refers to Matsuoka's career-high ranking of No. 46 (July 6, 1992).

Indications are that Nishikori will surpass that mark and begin tapping into the substantial marketing possibilities. He has already signed major deals with the Sony Corporation, Wilson and adidas. Van Lindonk, his IMG manager, said: "IMG is attempting to build a platform for Kei and lift the entire game of tennis in Japan. He has aggressive goals [which include reaching the Top 10] and the improvements he has made this season alone are very significant."

In September, Nishikori became the first Japanese player to reach the US Open fourth round since Jiro Yamagishi in 1937, but his season ended early due to a knee injury at the If Stockholm Open in October, when he reached the semifinals (l. to Soderling). "This year has taken its toll on me and in Stockholm my knee started to hurt," explained Nishikori, who amassed a 16-12 match record and rose from No. 289 to No. 64 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings in 2008. "An MRI scan has indicated that the problem is nothing serious, but it does mean my year is over."

Nishikori will move into his first house a couple of blocks from the IMG/Bollettieri Tennis Academy in December, and will then "start preparations for 2009 – when I hope to stay injury free, break into the Top 50 and compete at my first ATP Masters Series event [named 'Masters 1000' in 2009]."

Matsuoka, who also works as a sports commentator, said: "I have to admit I was taken by surprise when he won in Delray Beach, but I did know he was mentally strong and had a great game. Players in Japan do not physically develop as fast as other players and Kei is no exception. Because his body is not fully fit and developed – he was injured a lot as a junior – I thought maybe he would win his first title aged 20, 21 or 22."

"I can see he is a better player than I ever was, already. So I can't offer him too much advice on breaking into the Top 50. His tennis is there, but if I were him I would not worry too much about his ranking for the next two years. He must concentrate on getting fitter and then his consistency will improve."

Bollettieri added: "His strength has always been his athleticism and footwork. Kei also has great racquet head speed, good anticipation, court sense, natural depth, and has never been afraid to hit the ball. The most important thing for him now is to stay injury free." Should Nishikori enjoy good health, Project 45 will quickly be recalibrated to Project 10.

"The sport in Asia is in better shape than it has been for many years," said Matsuoka. "Last week I showed children a video of Kei when he was younger and trained at one of my camps. There was an immediate buzz. Now they realise that the goal of being a professional player doesn't just have to be dream."