After Kei Nishikori reached the U.S. Open final last year tennis pundits realized they’d been getting it right. This kid from Japan showed promise early on and now he was delivering, making everyone happy that they were so smart.
At one time when in his early teens, Nishikori was referred to as Project 45 at the IMG Academy where he trained. The reference was to the ranking number he needed to be the best Japanese player in history – Shuzo Matsuoka had attained No. 46 in his career.
Now, Nishikori is sitting at what looks to be a rather comfortable No. 5. That is comfortable for the number counters, but not so comfy for the man himself. Turns out, Nishikori has some reservations to being so highly ranked. Apparently, he prefers being under the radar whenever possible. (Note to Kei – If you keep playing as you have been that’s not happening anymore).
Here’s what Nishikori had to say after securing his second Australian Open quarterfinal berth on Monday – he also reached that round in 2012:
“It’s just a number,” he said. “But still, you know, I’m really new to be No. 5. It’s been only couple months to stay this ranking. You know, I just not comfortable. I was top 10 last year, early last year. This is pretty new for me. So I need some time, you know, to get more experience. Yeah, I start thinking, you know, little bit other things outside the court. I might feel pressure, other things. But, you know, I think I need some more time to get used to it.”
So what number would he prefer: “I don’t know. Maybe like 15, 20 (smiling).”
We’ll see how broadly Nishikori is smiling after he faces defending champion Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinal. Stan the man holds a 2-1 winning record over Kei, but Japan’s own had the last say. In the 2014 U.S. Open quarterfinal, Kei scored a 3-6, 7-5, 7-6(7), 6-7(5), 6-4 win en route to the final.
Is there a repeat performance in the ready for Wednesday? Can’t say until they play.
But one thing seems to be getting clearer and clearer to most of those tennis pundits – Wawrinka was the latest newcomer to the Grand Slam champion roll call last year, and whether it’s in Australia this week or sometime in the near future, Nishikori seems in direct line to join the elite crowd sooner than later.