A pioneering Kei Nishikori blazed a new trail for Japanese tennis with a shock win over world number one Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open on Saturday, becoming the first man from Asia to book a place in a grand slam final.
Already one of tennis’s top 10 earners according to Forbes.com, the 24-year-old Japanese battler can expect to soar even higher up both world and sponsorship rankings following a sensational march into the Flushing Meadows final that included upset wins over three higher seeds.
“I hope it is big news in Japan,” said Nishikori after his stunning 6-4 1-6 7-6(4) 6-3 win over the top seed. “I feel the support from Japan even from the TV even though it’s 4 o’clock in the morning, but I hope a lot of people watching.
“I know it is a tough time. It is completely opposite side (of the world).”
But already the messages were rolling in, he said.
“I got like 20 message already, even if it’s 4:00 a.m. Very happy to make another history.
“I hope I can win and to make another history.”
Djokovic, who helped put tennis on the map in his native Serbia with his seven grand slam wins, believes Nishikori’s appearance in Monday’s final could have a similar impact in Japan.
Nearly a century ago, Japan was a respectable tennis nation, Ichiya Kumagae appearing in the semi-final of the U.S. Open while Jiro Satoh made the last four at Wimbledon in 1932-3 as well as semi-finals in the Australian and French Opens in the ’30s.
The decades since have been lean times for Japanese fans with Kimiko Date-Krumm, and Ai Sugiyama waving the flag while China’s Li Na has put the spotlight on Asian tennis with her victory at the Australian Open.
Now Nishikori is increasingly in the spotlight with each upset win.
“This is definitely huge for Japan,” said Djokovic. “This can definitely be a great encouragement for tennis in that country.
“He’s been around for last couple of years. He’s been making a lot of success. But playing finals of a grand slam and now fighting for the title is definitely something different.
“He has gotten to another level.”
Certainly no one worked harder, or longer for their place in the final.
In a remarkable display of endurance, Nishikori followed up punishing five-set wins over third seed Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic with an even more extraordinary effort, grinding down the top-ranked Djokovic in two hours, 52 minutes on a sweltering Arthur Ashe Stadium court.
Nishikori arrived at sun-bathed Arthur Ashe Stadium looking fresh despite having played the latest finishing match ever at the U.S. Open on Tuesday in the fourth round against Raonic, when he walked off court at 2:26 a.m. local time.
Two days later Nishikori was forced to go the distance again, out-lasting Wawrinka in a four hour, 15 minute battle.
In total a tireless Nishikori logged 11 hours 16 minutes of court time in his last three matches.
“I guess I love to play long matches and I hope I can recover well for the final,” said Nishikori, who will take on another upset winner Marin Cilic in Monday’s final after the big-serving Croatian stopped 17-time grand slam winner Roger Federer 6-3 6-4 6-4. “It wasn’t easy, you know, playing two five sets and four hours’ match.
“It was even tough for me to play today(on Saturday). Especially third and fourth (sets) I couldn’t really put effort for every game.
“I tried to concentrate with those important points. Especially last game, you know, I tried to get more energy and tried to concentrate again. You know, I have been doing that well, you know, from couple of years ago. I hope I recover well tomorrow and ready for Monday.”