The Kei Nishikori effect; Now a global star, US Open finalist has changed the way Asians think about tennis | IMG Academy
As Natsuo Yamanaka walked through the Tokyo airport Sunday night, he proudly listened to the culmination of a decade’s work. On the ticket lines, in the bars, at the kiosks, everyday travelers were trading opinions about Kei Nishikori, whose improbable run to the finals at the US Open has been making banner headlines across Japan. “Usually it’s baseball or soccer,” says Yamanaka. “Now, every day, it’s tennis.”
Yamanaka works for a private investment fund that made it possible for Nishikori to go to the United States 14 years ago, and revolutionized tennis in Asia. Created by the former executive of Sony, Masaaki Morita, the fund invests roughly $100,000 a year for top Japanese players to set up shop at IMG’s tennis academy in Bradenton, Florida.
When the fund was in just its third year, Nishikori was a 14-year-old from a rural town called Matsue and didn’t speak a word of English, and he had a thick-lidded shyness that was painful. He kept largely to himself, stumbling through English classes and the rites of adolescence.
Back then, it was easy to overlook the 5-foot-10 hopeful. He wasn’t offered the full scholarship that many of the academy’s most promising students receive, nor did he have wealthy parents paying his way. Since then, however, he’s gone from a provincial diamond in the rough to an international star with an estimated $10 million in annual endorsements who’s changed the way Asians think about tennis. He’s so prominent that the maker of Ramen noodles, Nissin Foods, actually bought his naming rights so he could be known in the Japanese press as Nishikori-Nissin.
It’s worth pausing to consider how remarkable this is. In Nishikori’s early years, the IMG academy’s founder, Nick Bollettieri, had to tell him every day, “You’ll be No. 1 in the world.” The furthest an Asian man had gone in a Grand Slam was a semifinal in 1918, and the idea a Japanese player reaching the top of the rankings seemed ludicrous.
“There was no success before so Kei needed a reason to believe,” Yamanaka says.
Now, he’s the reason others believe.
Two-dozen Japanese reporters are assigned to cover him wherever he goes, and they’re filling two rows of desks at the press center in Flushing Meadow. Energized by the coverage, fans across Japan have been waking up early to watch him before they go to work — whether they watch at home or in the wedge-like subway restaurants all over Tokyo.
It’s like the World Cup served with sushi at daybreak.
Yamanaka, who serves on the board of the Morita fund, is in charge of trying to capitalize on all the excitement. While he lives in Bradenton, he was in Tokyo last week to attend a meeting of the Morita fund to decide who will get a chance to become the next Nishikori.
As part of his search for talent, Yamanaka joined IMG tennis director Rohan Goetzke at Japan’s national tournament in Osaka last month. And there, Yamanaka was thrilled to see the Nishikori effect on full display.
A decade ago, the game in Japan was taught below the waste, meaning defensively. In his travels around the world, Nishikori learned to hit above it with topspin, showing the Japanese that tennis could become an offensive game. “Kei is the one who has shown them how to take risks and win for himself,” Yamanaka says.
The long-term strategy is beginning to pay off. One of the prodigies in Japan’s pipeline is a 17-year-old who partnered to win the US Open junior doubles title last week, Naoki Nakagawa. Among those IMG is considering for admission to the academy is the winner of the 12-and-under group in Osaka, Shunsuke Mitsui. “We are looking for the ones who are very young and not set in their ways, because so much is going to change for them,” says Goetzke. “They have to get out from their insular thinking and their comfort zone and play on the world stage. That’s what Kei shows them.”
Nishikori lives full time in Florida, making it easier for him to avoid the intense glare that Andy Murray gets in Britain. But Nishikori’s commitment to Japanese tennis, Yamanaka says, remains profound. The star pays his success forward by paying a percentage of his earnings back to the Morita fund and practices with newcomers in Bradenton.
When Nishikori takes center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium at 5 p.m. ET Monday afternoon to face 25-year-old Marin Cilic of Bosnia, it will be 6 a.m. in Tokyo. And Yamanaka knows there will be plenty of his bleary-eyed countrymen getting up to see history get made.
For his part, he’ll be watching in his home in Bradenton with the next crop of Nishikoris, telling them: “See, this is not impossible.”