Japanese fans celebrated Kei Nishikori’s stunning win over top-ranked Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open, staying up to the wee hours of Sunday morning to catch a moment of tennis history.
The 24-year-old Japanese ace beat Djokovic 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3 in stifling heat to become the first man from Asia to reach a Grand Slam singles final.
“The fact that he is the first Japanese to reach the final is very inspirational,” said Tokyo office worker Keiko Mikami, who stayed up late to watch. “I hope we can all learn the value of never giving up from him.”
About 350 supporters crammed into a hotel reception area in Nishikori’s hometown of Matsue, a seaside city of nearly 200,000, to watch a live broadcast of the match that ended just after 4 a.m. local time.
Those who didn’t stay up late were elated to awake to the news.
“I watched the news as soon as I got up this morning. It’s great. He is the first Japanese to go to the final, right? And he beat the No. 1 guy. Well done!” said Yuki Tateishi, an IT company employee, taking a break at shopping mall in the Tokyo suburbs. “I’ll try to stay up and watch the final.”
Others praised Nishikori for his Yamato damashii – Japanese spirit.
“It is great news,” said Nobukazu Yoshimizu, a financial institution employee. “He’s Japanese, he’s rather small physically, yet he is full of energy and spirit.”
Nishikori’s win has captivated a country that has had few male players to cheer before. For years, female players like Ai Sugiyama and Kimiko Date-Krumm contended at the Grand Slams, but now Nishikori is the face of Japanese tennis.
Even though he has been based in the U.S. for years, Nishikori is a huge star in Japan. He is a pitchman for the Japanese clothing company Uniqlo, food company Nissin and sports equipment company Wilson. And when he does play in the country, the tournaments sell out within hours.
His surprising victory over Djokovic was the lead story on national Sunday morning TV news programs. And the mass circulation Asahi Shimbun issued a special online edition with the headline: “Nishikori advances to the final, beats Djokovic at US Open tennis.”
Japanese celebrities even lauded Nishikori’s historic victory. “I was so happy to get the chance to see Japanese reach the final,” actor Ken Matsudaira said. “I really hope he can win the final.”
Haruka Shimada, a member of Japan’s hugely popular female pop group AKB48, also tweeted her congratulations. “I was very impressed. I’m so glad I’m a tennis fan. Nishikori is amazing,” she wrote.
Fortunately, Japanese fans won’t have to stay up late to watch Nishikori play in Monday’s final against Croatia’s Marin Cilic. They’ll have to get up early instead – the match starts at 6 a.m. on Tuesday in Japan.
Regardless of the outcome, Nishikori’s star is certain only to get bigger back home.
“This is easily the biggest news in the history of Japanese tennis,” former Japan Davis Cup player Jun Kamiwazumi said. “This will have a huge impact on the sport here and I expect many young children will be inspired to emulate him.”