© Hiroshi Sato

Yasutaka Uchiyama defeats Marcel Granollers to qualify for the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships main draw on Sunday.

How A Text From Nishikori Helped Spur Uchiyama To A Career Year

Japanese qualifies for Tokyo main draw

The seventh time proved the charm for Yasutaka Uchiyama on Sunday.

On the six previous occasions he tried to qualify for the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships, the Japanese player fell short. But Uchiyama, who has played the main draw twice before, advanced through qualifying for the first time, defeating Spaniard Marcel Granollers 6-3, 6-4 in the final round.

“This is very special,” Uchiyama said. “This is my first time qualifying for an ATP 500, so it gives me a lot of confidence and I feel this year I’m doing well. I’m at a career-high ATP Ranking. I feel I can do more, so it gives me confidence.”

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It’s been a banner year for the 27-year-old, who has enjoyed plenty of career firsts. Interestingly, Uchiyama began his season with a surprise. Just inside the Top 200 of the ATP Rankings at the time, he was outside of the qualifying cut in Brisbane, and only found out about a day before that he would get into the event.

So instead of remaining in Japan to continue training for Australian Open qualifying, Uchiyama hopped on a flight to Australia, got 30 minutes of practice in Brisbane the day he landed and began his season the next day. Little did he know that he would end up reaching his first ATP Tour quarter-final.

“It gave me a lot of confidence. It made me more motivated to be a better player,” said Uchiyama, who beat Ugo Humbert and Kyle Edmund in Brisbane. “Especially those two matches gave me a lot of confidence because if I play my best tennis, I can beat many top guys. It was very big for me.”

It was close to being even bigger, as Uchiyama lost his quarter-final against Jeremy Chardy in a final-set tie-break.

“I was so disappointed because if I beat him, I would have played against Kei in the semis, so I was so disappointed,” Uchiyama said. “But still, it was a great tournament for me, first time in a quarter-final on the ATP Tour.”

After his strong run, Uchiyama received a text from Japanese superstar Kei Nishikori.

“He texted me that when I play good, I can beat anyone. That gave me a lot of confidence,” Uchiyama said. “It was very, very special because sometimes I was not believing in myself 100 per cent. But after that Brisbane, I could believe in myself 100 per cent, so it changed a lot.”

“Especially Kei [inspires me]. He is a Japanese star, so he inspires me a lot to be a better player… He gives me advice for technique, for the tactics, for the mental [game]. He gives me a lot of information on other players. So it helps me a lot.”

The Brisbane result was not a one-off for Uchiyama, who qualified for his first Grand Slam main draw at Wimbledon. He then went on to claim his fourth ATP Challenger Tour title in Shanghai earlier this month.

“It’s difficult to win a tournament at any level, so making good results at Challengers a few times this year [was good], but this was special to win the tournament,” Uchiyama said. “Of course it helps me for this week to play with confidence in Tokyo.”

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Uchiyama will face a tough test against fourth seed Benoit Paire. But the home favourite knows this is an important moment for him. Uchiyama is at a career-high No. 138 in the ATP Rankings, and he aims to push even higher.

“The Top 100 is my goal for this year. My next goal is to be playing in the Tokyo Olympics next summer, so I need to be like Top 60. So at least I need to make the Top 100 this year,” Uchiyama said. “Not many players have a chance to play the Olympics in their home country, so I really want to play in the Olympics. All the Japanese people like to watch the Olympics, maybe even more than the Grand Slams, so this is going to be very special.”

Uchiyama believes that his weapons are his serve and his forehand, and he is comofrtable at the net, as evidenced by his Tokyo title with Ben McLachlan two years ago. The Tokyo resident doesn’t think he needs to reinvent the wheel to continue his climb, just that he must use his increased confidence to continue doing what he’s been doing in 2019.

“I believe that I just have to keep going like this,” Uchiyama said. “I won a Challenger this month, I beat Steve Johnson and Marcel Granollers, who are good players. I think I just have to do what I’m doing now.”

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