Nishioka Channeling Inner Rios In Comeback
It has been a long road for Yoshihito Nishioka. Exactly one year ago, the 23-year-old was at home, steadily making progress with his rehab after suffering a torn ACL.
Nishioka details the process as quite grueling, forcing him to draw upon all his physical and emotional fortitude. But as arduous as it has been, each victory tastes that much sweeter.
On Sunday, Nishioka will hope to cap the greatest week of his young career with a maiden ATP World Tour title. The margins couldn't have been closer as he edged Fernando Verdasco in a deciding tie-break, reaching his first tour-level final at the Shenzhen Open.
"It has been 10 months since I returned, but I think that is actually quick to get to this point," said Nishioka following his semi-final win. "I'm really happy for this. I never reached a final before I got injured, so I think my level is better than ever. It's no surprise to me, but I do feel lucky to get here."
Nishioka is bidding to not only become the 11th first-time winner on the ATP World Tour this year, but do so as a qualifier. Six wins in seven days, including impressive victories over an in-form Denis Kudla, Denis Shapovalov and Cameron Norrie, have put the Japanese on the precipice of his maiden title.
Just four months ago, Nishioka was sitting at No. 362 in the ATP Rankings when he triumphed at the ATP Challenger Tour stop in Gimcheon, Korea. Now, he is looking to add an even bigger piece of silverware to his collection in Shenzhen. And perhaps the greatest prize of all: victory would see him return to the Top 100 for the first time in 14 months.
How is Nishioka putting it all together and thriving once again? He draws inspiration from his idols. Like former World No. 1 Marcelo Rios, the 5'7" Nishioka is also under 6-feet tall and he admits that he models his game after the Chilean legend. In an era of big-hitting giants, there is something to be said for the diminutive fighter who utilizes his agility as a major weapon.
"When I was younger, I watched Marcelo Rios. When I went to the United States, I was training all the time at Nick Bolletieri's academy and he told me I have to watch more of Rios. He is around the same height as me and he got to World No. 1, so I think I can make it. I can run more than him too.
"And for sure Kei is the biggest reason why we [the Japanese players] are doing so well. He made it to No. 4 and he showed us that we can be like that. Also, he's not the tallest player. Many Japanese players play the Challengers to get a higher ATP Ranking, but we also have to play more ATP tournaments and Kei has showed us it is possible."
On Sunday, Nishioka will square off against Pierre-Hugues Herbert for the Shenzhen title. A first-time winner will be guaranteed when the Japanese and the Frenchman take to Center Court. Regardless of what transpires, Nishioka relishing the moment.
"I know he has a good serve and likes to come to the net many times. He's playing very aggressive. I think it's very important for me to return well tomorrow. If I'm doing that, maybe he will have pressure on his service games and get nervous and make mistakes. I just have to get pressure on him.
"I'm very excited for this moment. I was not thinking I could reach the final when I was in qualifying. But this is very exciting for me, to be in my first final. I know there will be pressure tomorrow, but I will try to do my best."