Commenting on Kei Nishikori’s performance at the Japan Open in Tokyo the other day, ATP executive chairman Brad Drewett said: “Kei is a terrific player who is already a star at home in Japan and among the Top 20 players in the world … Kei has a very bright future on the ATP World Tour.”
As bureaucratic fluff goes, it was standard fare. But what Drewett did not say, and as a former player he surely knows, is that being a top 20 player and “star” in a nation starved for tennis champions is one thing — actually winning your national open championships, if you’re not named Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic, is quite another. Just ask Andy Murray, or the legion of British players who fell on their swords for 75 years in vain attempts to win the Big One at home.
In Murray’s case it was (of course) Wimbledon. Nobody is going to confuse the Japan Open with Wimbledon, but these things can be relative. Fred Perry won Wimbledon three times running ending in 1936 and then became a shirt and cast a hex over the event that remains unbroken to this day. The Japanese had an even more painful source of national shame; no Japanese player had won the Japan Open. Ever.
The closest any player had previously come to winning in Japan was Shuzo Matsuoka, now 44 and a revered figure from Sapporo to Nagasaki. In 1992 Shuzo was the first Japanese to win an ATP tour title of any kind when he hopped over to South Korea and prevailed in Seoul.
But the pressure — and quality of competition — in Tokyo has always been of a different order of magnitude. Shuzo, a Wimbledon quarterfinalist in 1995, posted a career-high ranking of 46. But the best he could do in Tokyo was a quarterfinal in 1988, and it was just the second (and final) time in his entire career that he won two matches in a row in Tokyo.
Nishikori, just 22 but oft-injured, hit his stride last year and surpassed Matsuoka’s best ranking and ultimately hit a career-high No. 16 in March. But winning in Japan? That was an entirely different matter because of past history and the inherent “home court” pressures. Nishikori had been as far as…