MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Asia’s failure to produce a male grand slam singles champion is a wrong that needs to be righted, according to Kei Nishikori, and the Japanese trailblazer has made it his mission to be first to clinch a major trophy for the continent.
The slender 23-year-old has a history of breaking new ground, his electrifying quarter-final run at last year’s Australian Open making him the first Japanese man in the last eight at Melbourne Park in 80 years.
The top 10 beckons this year for the 18th-ranked Nishikori but grand slam success is a long-term plan that hinges on staying injury-free and bulking up physically to match the muscle-men who dominate the pinnacle of tennis.
“For sure, it’s important for an Asian man to win a grand slam. I hope I‘m the one to make it,” Nishikori told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
”My height is no longer growing, but my muscle is still growing.
”I still want to be a little bit bigger. Hopefully in a few years. They say in Asia, the body gets perfect about 25 or 26.
“(Tennis) is more of a power game right now so you need to have good muscle and be strong.”
At 5-ft-10in (1.78 metres) with a wiry frame, Nishikori lacks the height and physique of most of his opponents, and has relied on guile, speed and shot-making to propel himself into the top 20.
All of those qualities were on display in his second round match with 68th-ranked Carlos Berlocq, as he repelled the Argentine journeyman’s baseline rockets and counter-punched his way to a 7-6 6-4 6-1 victory.
Since announcing himself as a teenager with a maiden ATP title at Delray Beach in 2008, Nishikori has been blighted by injuries in his budding career, stoking fears his true potential may never be realised.
He withdrew with a knee injury when trailing by a set against Andy Murray in the semi-finals of the Brisbane International in the lead up and has carried the complaint into Melbourne Park.
His knee was still taped against Berlocq and he strode gingerly off the court, but after taking an ice-bath Nishikori said he wasn’t losing sleep over it.
“It’s getting better and there’s almost no pain. I just put tape there just in case,” he said. “Everything is working well for me here.”
It’s been smooth sailing for Japan in general at Melbourne Park, where all six entrants in both the men and women’s draws advanced to the second round, spear-headed by record-breaking Kimiko Date-Krumm’s astonishing 6-2 6-0 upset over 12th-seeded Russian Nadia Petrova.
The 42-year-old’s victory made her the oldest woman to win a match at the Australian Open and was an inspiration to the younger Japanese players, Nishikori said.
“Her spirit is unbelievable ... I don’t want to talk about age, but she doesn’t look like 40,” he added.
“She’s more like a sister (to me). She gives me good advice. She was in the top five so it’s good to have someone like her to talk to.”
Nishikori is one of only two Asian men in the top 50, and daylight separates him from the next best-ranked Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan (50).
He continued his steady rise with his second ATP title at the Japan Open in October, further burnishing his reputation in his home country.
His success has attracted a devoted set of Japanese cheer-leaders at Melbourne Park, with pom-pom-shaking fans chanting his name at matches and mobbing him court-side.
Nishikori’s exit from Showcourt Three on Wednesday caused some panic among the phalanx of security guards who strained to hold back more than 100 well-wishers pressing in from all sides.
The pressure of being Japan’s number one player and Asia’s major grand slam hope is a burden Nishikori is happy to shoulder, and he politely answers myriad questions from some 20 Japanese reporters at his post-match media conference.
“It’s good to feel the attention, you get more fun out of life,” Nishikori shrugged with a smile.
“I‘m very proud of what I‘m doing now. Hopefully I can do well and I hope tennis can get bigger in Japan and Asia. That’s my goal.”
Editing by Amlan Chakraborty