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Nishioka: Following in the footsteps of Nishikori

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Originally published on 29/04/16 00:00

When Kei Nishikori’s Japan took on reigning Davis Cup champions Great Britain in Birmingham last March, their hopes of an upset rested with the world No.6. Yet, as eyes focused on the Murray brothers in the doubles, under the radar of most went rising star Yoshihito Nishioka, one half of the Japanese pairing. 

On the cusp of breaking into the world’s Top 100, the 20-year-old has developed into one of the ATP Tour’s most exciting prospects, a journey which started at the age of four through the coaching of his father.

Eyebrows were first raised in New York back in 2012 as the 17-year-old reached the semi-finals of the junior US Open on his favourite surface at Flushing Meadows. It was not until 2014 that Nishioka burst onto the professional scene, the start of a career inspired by idol Marcelo Rios. 

While the Chilean was best known for his disguise, Nishioka’s main weapon comes in the form of his backhand, a shot which if he is to continue his ascension will be a significant contributing factor.

Just two spots off his career high of 101, it seems that a Top 100 berth is imminent and will represent the latest achievement of a career very much still in its embryonic stage.

Illness prevented the Japanese player making his Grand Slam main draw debut at the 2014 US Open. However, qualification and his maiden ATP Challenger title in Shanghai the week after meant he rose into the Top 200 for the first time. He has not looked back since.

A gold medal at the 2014 Asian Games crowned him the first Japanese champion since 1974 and represented a landmark in his career as he moved into 2015.

Qualifying for Delray Beach was not enough for 5’7” hard court specialist, as he became the first teenage qualifier to reach the quarter-finals since fellow countryman Nishikori. He eventually fell to Australian Bernard Tomic, after victories against two higher ranked players in the previous rounds.

Paris and Roland Garros called, and a successful qualifying campaign saw Nishioka draw then world No.4 Tomas Berdych in the first round – an unsuccessful test which provided invaluable experience going forward.

Wimbledon remained uncharted territory meaning the Japanese No.3 moved into his favoured hard court season targeting an assault on Flushing Meadows. Going deep into several Challenger events, as well as the main draw in Washington, where he lost to Alexander Zverev, prepared Nishioka for what would be the greatest success of his career so far.

Defeating Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund in the final US Open qualifying round paired him with Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu, a fellow qualifier, who held a two sets to one lead before Nishioka’s youthful exuberance triumphed in five.

Being dispatched by Thomaz Bellucci in the following round did not dishearten the youngster, who was rewarded for his American exploits with a Davis Cup debut against Colombia just weeks later.

There is no doubt that Grand Slam and ATP main draw experience is priceless regarding Nishioka’s development, yet Challenger tennis still played its part, as following four semi-finals throughout the year Nishioka registered his second title in Toyota to finish 2015 with a career high ranking of 117.

This year kick-started in Australia, a trip thanks to success in Shenzhen at the Asia-Pacific wildcard play-offs whereby he qualified for his debut at Melbourne Park. A notable win over former world No.10 Ernests Gulbis in Brisbane was encouraging preparation going into the Australian Open which ultimately ended in a first round straight sets defeat to Pablo Cuevas.

February saw a run to the Memphis Open quarter-finals halted by American fourth seed Sam Querrey before a trip to Miami gave reason for celebration.

Finally navigating his way through a Masters 1000 qualifying at the fourth time of asking, Nishioka set up a clash with Jared Donaldson, whose home support failed to push the American through. Nishioka went on to claim the scalp of world No.23 Feliciano Lopez, his best ATP Tour win, before succumbing to an in-form Dominic Thiem in the third round.

Automatic Grand Slam main draw entry comes with a Top 100 place and sitting just three places off, Nishioka, who will turn 21 in September, will be pressing to compete in all four majors in a calendar year for the first time.

Inspired by Rios, aspiring to match Nishikori and aiming for the world’s elite is a recipe that can only bode well for the youngster who we may see challenging on the major stage in the not so distant future. Watch this space.

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