Captain Nishioka’s First Flight! Japanese Star On Off-Court Action & ‘Yoshi’s Cup’
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on 16 August 2023.
Yoshihito Nishioka, Action Man.
Life on the ATP Tour involves enough time spent practising, preparing, and recovering from competing that off-court escapes have become all-important for the Japanese star. The 2023 season has been no exception for Nishioka, whose experiences this year include flying a plane through the skies above Phoenix, Arizona, in March.
“It was my first time flying [a plane]," Nishioka told ATPTour.com earlier this year. "The person who was sitting with me, he just got a licence and he wanted me to sit by him. It was really great. I cannot do that in Japan, so it was really fun.
“I love Phoenix because the nature is beautiful. Sometimes a bit too hot and very dry, but I love nature. [I was in control of the plane] for like five minutes. We flew for two hours, but he said, ‘Okay, there is nothing around this area, so you can do it’. I tried. It was so scary, but it was a good experience.”
A two-time ATP Tour champion, Nishioka feels non-tennis activities are essential to maintain a healthy balance for players who spend much of the year on the road.
“You cannot be always focused,” said the 27-year-old. “We need some time to relax, to play the next week or the next tournament. That kind of thing is very important for us and we can appreciate it, too.”
That even applies to days off during tournament weeks. A couple of weeks after Nishioka touched down safely in Phoenix, he was gliding across the waves off the Miami coast on a jetski during his stay at the Miami Open presented by Itau.
“We’re [often] looking for something that we can do in tournament time,” said Nishioka. “I need to relax sometimes when we have a day off. So we're always looking for something and it's always enjoyable. I don't want to get too tired, like doing something for the whole day. But a couple of hours or something, that should be great.”
Nishioka's off-court activities aren't all adrenaline-fuelled outings. As the leading Japanese player in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, his desire to see his nation continue to develop top talent led to him founding ‘Yoshi’s Cup’, an annual tournament in Tokyo, in cooperation with a TV company.
“It was during COVID time. So many juniors lost many tournaments, even within Japan,” explained Nishioka. “So they were practising, but they had no motivation to practise because they didn't have any tournaments.
“So I wanted to open up the tournament. I have a name in Japan for tennis, so I thought if I do that, maybe it will interest [the juniors]. It was only supposed to be one time, but after we did it some other people who helped with my tournament and love tennis said, ‘Actually, this is very good for tennis in Japan. So we think we should keep doing this every year and keep improving the tournament’. I can only do it one time a year, but it should be very helpful for juniors."
With help from coaches from the Japanese Tennis Federation, Nishioka selects eight junior boys, who must all be aged 16 or under, to compete in an event that is streamed live on his YouTube channel. More than 2000 people have tuned in to watch at times and, with all expenses paid and significant prize money on offer, this is no ordinary junior event. But Nishioka says this is for a good reason.
“In Japan we are far away from anywhere. If we have to go somewhere like the U.S. or Europe, it is very expensive,” he said. “For the tournaments for juniors under 16, they cannot go by themselves, so they need someone to go with them, a parent or a coach, and the price is going to double. So I want to give support for this. I want to give a chance to somebody who is very talented. I'm not certain they can be a great player, but they can use a chance. I want to give this chance.
“So, this tournament has prize money. Every year, it's improving by $10,000. This year's winner can get $30,000, so it is huge money for a junior if they get it. I also give an [ITF World Tennis Tour] Futures wild card in Japan. So it’s not only for a junior, but one who wants to be a pro. I want to give the chance to play some professional tournaments.”
As he prepares to take on Alexander Zverev in the second round at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, some may ask why Nishioka has already started such a big off-court project that could potentially distract him during the peak of his pro career. In fact, says the 27-year-old, his current status as a Top 50 player makes it the perfect time.
“I'm doing it now because I have a profile in Japan right now for tennis,” said Nishioka. “So if I ask someone [for something], they might listen to what I say. But if I finish my career, maybe they don't listen, or other players will have a stronger profile. Now I have value [to make things happen] and I want to move [the project along], so I'm asking many companies to invest in tennis.”