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Yoshihito Nishioka returns to the ATP Cup as Japan’s No. 2 singles player.

No Room To Relax For Nishioka In ATP Cup Return

Japan will face Russia and Argentina in Group D

At last year’s inaugural ATP Cup, Yoshihito Nishioka underwent a baptism of fire as he took on the mantle of Japan’s No. 1 singles player in Kei Nishikori’s absence. The 25-year-old held his own to claim two crucial points for his team, and gave World No. 1 Rafael Nadal a stern test before Japan bowed out in the group stage.

Back in action in Melbourne, battle-tested Nishioka knows there’s no room to relax even as Nishikori readies for his own ATP Cup debut. With hard quarantine keeping his teammate out of commission, Nishioka knows that Team Japan will be leaning on him more than ever.

“It’s going to be a little bit different [from last year]. But [on the court] the situation is the same: three sets and three matches. So for sure it’s going to be very fun,” Nishioka said.

ATPTour.com caught up with the World No. 57 before the tournament to talk about last year’s stellar performance, his love for team events and how he’s adjusting to his new role as Team Japan’s No. 2.

How do you feel about representing Team Japan again at the ATP Cup?
It’s very exciting to play ATP Cup a second year as well. Last year it was 24 countries and this year it’s 12, so it’s going to be a little bit different. But [on the court] the situation is the same: three sets and three matches. So for sure it’s going to be very fun. 

I know it’s a very, very tough time right now. It’s tough [for players] to get practice, some players [got] no practice. Even Kei [Nishikori], he [was] not practising for 14 days. So this is very tough for Team Japan. But I think everyone is excited to play the tournament. For many players, it’s going to be the first tournament of the year.

The team events are my favourite. I know there is Davis Cup as well, but the ATP Cup is also a bit different. It is very exciting to play this year again. Hopefully we can try to win.

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What do you enjoy about team events, and what makes the ATP Cup special for you?
Because tennis players are always travelling by ourselves, only with our team. So we don’t get to travel that much with friends. Especially the Japanese, we don’t have very many top players in our country so most people play at the Challengers, not [on the] ATP Tour.

We’re not going to be at the same tournament every time, only at the team tournaments we can stay together. I like that. We can play with a team, and also play for our country – that’s why I love it as a team event.

How would you introduce each of your teammates?
So Kei, everybody knows Kei. I don’t know how well the fans know about him, but he loves to play games. I think one of the nicest guys on Tour. He has taught me many things, inside the court and also outside the court.

Ben [McLachlan], I didn't know him before maybe five years [ago]. He’s also a nice guy. But I thought he was just very shy… but he wasn’t! He’s very, very funny. He has started learning to speak Japanese and he’s getting better and better. I hope his Japanese [continues] improving this time as well and we can try to have some conversations in Japanese, not only English.

Toshi [Toshihide Matsui] is the oldest guy in our team, and also in Japanese tennis. He can still play singles [at 42 years old], his body is very, very strong. I think he’s stronger than me for sure... He has many experiences to share, both good and bad experiences. So he can teach us about both things.

And me... Maybe I’m a little bit of a funny guy? [laughs]

Last year as Japan’s No. 1, you played some phenomenal tennis and even gave Rafael Nadal a stern test. What inspired those performances?
Last year was a very wonderful moment for me. I had a great time, and I think it was the perfect start to the year 2020. I don’t know why I started last year very well, but I was feeling very confident. It was the first tournament of the year and that’s the team event, which like I said is my favourite.

And last year, we didn’t have Kei [due to injury], so I was the No. 1. I [felt] a bit of pressure, but it was also very fun to play against the top players in the world. I was very excited to play for my country as the No. 1 player.

How different will it be to play as Japan’s No. 2? You’ll be taking the court first every time, does that affect your mentality? 
I think No.2 players, if you win the first match, it’s going to be good for the team and it puts pressure on the other opponent countries. So for me, the first match is going to be very important for Team Japan.

We’re going to play first against Russia, which is against [Andrey] Rublev. I know him pretty well. I know he won [against] many good players, he made the Top 10. I think he is younger than me, but still he is very, very good. He’s very aggressive. But I think I can figure out how to beat him and if I do, that will be a help to Kei so he can be [more] relaxed to play against [Daniil] Medvedev. [Argentina’s No. 2] Guido Pella, I’ve played him a couple of times, but he beat me every time. But also, Pella had a hard quarantine for 14 days, which is tough for him as well. 

How have Team Japan preparations changed with Kei Nishikori in hard quarantine?
I cannot imagine how tough [it will be] to play after 14 days. I cannot imagine... The most important thing is that he has to be healthy, because he has to play against Medvedev and Diego [Schwartzman], both great players.

For sure, we are all hoping he can come back fast... We just need to all support him, and I want to help as much as I can with what I can do. Kei is really important to beat the other countries, so we need him. He is very important to Team Japan. He motivates us as well, me, Ben and Matsui. Ben and I are both younger than them so when Kei is showing us what he can do, we get more motivated to go higher. So we are believing in him and we are trying our best for him. 

Former player Max Mirnyi, who coaches Nishikori, will be Japan’s team captain. How well do you know him, and what is he like as captain?
I know him pretty well. When I was at IMG Academy when I was 16 or 17, he was still playing on the Tour. He was playing singles as well, not only doubles. He practised with me many times at IMG Academy. We played a couple of sets and also doubles practice.

He’s very, very focused. I think he can bring us the great mentality of how to beat the top players. Of course Kei is here and he’s a top player too, but Max knows how to beat the top players as well. I think he can bring us a strong mentality. He can tell us many things to improve the Japanese team. 

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