January 25, 2012 / 9:17 AM / 8 years ago

Tennis-Japanese battler Nishikori vows to return stronger

MELBOURNE, Jan 25 (Reuters) - Kei Nishikori’s Australian Open adventure came to an abrupt halt against Andy Murray on Wednesday, but the fleet-footed Japanese was pleased with his “fantastic” week and promised to come back stronger.

The slim-built 22-year-old had set himself a target of making the top 20 in 2011 but will have to raise his goals after already achieving the milestone with his superb quarter-final run at Melbourne Park.

The first Japanese man to reach the last eight of the year’s first grand slam in 80 years, Nishikori is projected to rise to 20th when the new rankings come out next week, making him the standard-bearer for Asia, a continent that has produced few world-class players in men’s tennis.

“That’s exciting news for me because my first goal was to get to the top 20,” Nishikori said after a crushing 6-3 6-3 6-1 defeat by Murray.

“I can’t believe it’s already done, already (within) two months. Yeah, it was a fantastic week for me. Now (I will) try to get top 15 or something like that.”

Nishikori, a relatively pint-sized 1.78m (5-foot-10), slugged it out with one of the game’s musclemen, flooring sixth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in five sets in a shock fourth round win.

Cheered on by kimono-clad fans at Rod Laver Arena, Nishikori was outpointed but not humiliated by world number four Murray, who conceded the skilful Japanese had beaten him in all the “fun” points.

Nishikori, dubbed ‘Air Kei’ in Japan for his leaping groundstrokes, believes his best is yet to come, as a player who feels his body won’t reach its physical peak until his mid-20s, like many male Asian athletes.

“Physically you have to get to 25 or 26 years old to build the body. It’s different than other countries,” said Nishikori, who caused a stir in 2008 when he won the Delray Beach title as an 18-year-old.

“Of course, (I have) a lot of more (growing),” added Nishikori, who struggled to recover from an elbow injury the year after his ATP Tour breakthrough.

“But I was happy that I wasn’t too tired to get here. If it’s last year, you know, I would be dead for sure.

“So I’m really happy how my physical (condition) is now. I had a good off-season last year. Of course to win a grand slam I have to be more fit.

“I need a few years for sure. But it’s getting better. It’s getting there.”

(Editing by Alastair Himmer; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)

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