Kei Nishikori: From ‘Project 45’ To Top 10

Today, Kei Nishikori becomes the first Japanese man to break into the Top 10 of the Emirates ATP Rankings. pays tribute to the 24-year-old record-setter.

Japan waited 16 years for an heir to Shuzo Matsuoka, the tennis player turned media personality, who had ranked a career-high No. 45 in the Emirates ATP Rankings in July 1992. Kei Nishikori became the nation’s answer. And Project 45 was spawned.

Nishikori broke through that barrier with a semi-final run at the 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters, making light of extensive publicity to become the poster boy for a generation of young talent that is forging a reputation amongst the established names on the ATP World Tour.

Today, the shy Shimane native, who arrived on the door-step of Nick Bollettieri's academy in Bradenton, Florida speaking not a word of English, has joined his idol Roger Federer in the Top 10 of the Emirates ATP Rankings.

Nishikori is the first Japanese man to be placed among the elite of men’s professional tennis and the first Asian to rank inside the Top 10 since Thailand’s Paradorn Srichaphan on 29 March 2004.

Nishikori, who began last week at the Mutua Madrid Open at No. 12, had previously reached a career-high of No. 11 on 17 June 2013.

“It was big goal for me to get Top 10, but it's just only one week for now,” said 24-year-old Nishikori, after he had beaten Feliciano Lopez in the Madrid quarter-finals to earn his place. "So I have to keep playing better tennis and keep this ranking. My goal is not to get one time into the Top 10. Hopefully I can keep this ranking.”

Nishikori has continually looked to improve as he has risen up the Emirates ATP Rankings, ever since he won his first ATP World Tour title as a qualifier at Delray Beach in 2008.

His game has become remarkably consistent, while his forehand and speed between the lines are now major weapons. His attitude and character have strengthened, too, in the spotlight.

When he lifted his first ATP World Tour 500 title amidst terrific media glare at Tokyo less than two years ago, with victories over Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic, Nishikori felt comfortable with his status. “On one side of my mind, I cannot believe I won the tournament, but at the same time, I feel that I’m happy I was able to do this,” said Nishikori.

Nishikori’s title run prompted Brad Drewett, the former ATP Executive Chairman and President, to comment, “Kei is a terrific player who is already a star at home in Japan and among the Top 20 players in the world. I’m sure this historic win over a very difficult field in Tokyo will give him great confidence and we look forward to seeing all that he can do. Kei has a very bright future on the ATP World Tour and we couldn’t be more proud of him."

When Nishikori finished 2012 and 2013 inside the Top 20 of the Emirates ATP Rankings, he did not waver in his pursuit of a Top 10 berth. He brought in former World No. 2 and 1989 Roland Garros champion Michael Chang to work alongside Dante Bottini.

“For sure, [Chang] is giving me good improvements,” Nishikori told in Madrid. “My tennis is getting better and stronger, especially with him. It's going well with him. He's given me good tips that I need to work on. We have similar playing styles, so he knows what I need to work on.”

Chang’s influence has reaped instant rewards with Nishikori’s second Memphis title; victory over Federer en route to the Miami semi-finals; his first clay-court title in Barcelona and his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 final in Madrid.

As the season continues, all eyes will be on Nishikori – the newest member of the Top 10 and the crowd favourite, who always plays with a smile on his face. As the possessor of a steely resistance, the tennis world wonders: What next for Special Kei?