Unceasing desire to become a better player
NISHIKORI Kei has faced countless adversities throughout his tennis career. He has been sidelined with injuries for extended periods and has come painfully close to winning a Grand Slam title, only to fall agonisingly short. Players receive abundant support off the court, but once they are on it, they are left to face their own one-on-one battle. Whether they win or lose, the responsibility is on them.
Since turning professional in October 2007 at the age of 17, Nishikori has endured over a decade in this environment.
“Having gone through all sorts of experiences, I feel I’ve become stronger than before. I think I have acquired mental maturity and composure,” he said.
When Nishikori was in his teens, he was a fearless and aggressive tennis player. By the time he reached his mid-20s, he had emerged as one of the world’s top players, striking a perfect balance between attack and defence. At the 2014 US Open, he achieved the groundbreaking feat of winning the men’s semi-final to become Japan’s first ever Grand Slam singles finalist. He also reached the semi-finals at the same major in 2016 and 2018. Fighting fierce battles with the leading players at Grand Slam tournaments with the whole world watching made Nishikori stronger. The tension and pressure of producing results under these circumstances can be unimaginable.
“My love for tennis and my unceasing desire to become a better player drove me on,” he remarked, looking back over his career to date.
Having constantly strived to reach the pinnacle of his game, Nishikori realised he had overtaken most of his rivals. He felt a sense of responsibility, resolution and loneliness, that only those who reach the very upper echelons of professional sport can relate to. However this complicated mixture of emotions has been an invaluable source of growth for him.
A year’s absence changed Nishikori’s mindset
(c) Tokyo 2020
Nishikori was sidelined with an elbow injury in 2009. It would become a turning point in his career as a professional tennis player.
“There was a time when I couldn’t play matches for a whole year because of an injury to my right elbow. I had a hard time undergoing surgery for the first time in my life and was also anxious about whether I would be able to regain a place in the top 100, but I learned a lot during this time of hardship. Thanks to the injury, I have come to value the importance of taking care of my body,” he said.
The injury occurred in 2008, the year after he had turned pro, and shortly after he had claimed his first tour title at the Delray Beach Open, which had pushed him up to a double-digit ranking. Being away for a whole year must have been difficult for a player on the rise, but he managed to acquire the skills required to control his emotions.
“I basically keep my mind blank while I’m absent from the game,” said Nishikori.
He would suppress his desire to make a premature comeback and control his emotions, instead of letting his focus drift. This approach can also be applied in matches. The key is to remain as composed as possible even in the face of adversity. Emotions can naturally get out of hand for any human being, but Nishikori constantly strives to stay positive.
“You never know until the end whether chances will come up. Even if your opponent is playing at 150 per cent, the flow of the game can change. When things are beyond your control, which may often be the case, you just have to wait patiently for your chances to come around. Even when I’m in a difficult phase or not playing well, I stay positive, believing that my chance will come along eventually,” he said.
Nishikori loves the mottos, “try hard” and “never give up”. The importance of what the phrases convey was first taught to him by former tennis player MATSUOKA Shuzo when he attended the Shuzo Challenge tennis camp for young children. The phrases are also often used by Nishikori’s coach, Michael Chang. To this day, Nishikori lives by the motto of “trying hard without giving up”, which is essential for achieving growth as a person.
Playing for Japan, not for himself
Kei Nishikori of Japan celebrates after winning the singles bronze medal match against Rafael Nadal of Spain at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
The Olympic Games have always held a special significance for the three-time Olympian. With every experience at the Games, he became more aware of his own weak points and gained self-confidence at the same time. For tennis players, the most coveted prize is a Grand Slam title, but the Olympic Games are inspiring and motivating for a different reason.
“In the Olympics, I get to watch other Japanese athletes up close, which genuinely motivates me. Even if we are competing in different sports, we feel a sense of unity. This exerts a positive influence on my tennis and makes me stronger.”
2016 Getty Images
Nishikori used to say he was playing tennis “for himself”, but at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, he said he was playing “for Japan.” In the quarter-final match against Gaël Monfils, Nishikori had his back to the wall, having to fight off three match points in a tiebreaker at 3-6. From there, he won five points in a row to turn the tables on the Frenchman and close out the match.
In the bronze medal match, Nishikori came up against Rafael Nadal in his bid to earn Japan a first tennis medal in 96 years. Though Nishikori won the first set, he succumbed in the second to the Spaniard. Despite allowing the flow of the game to change, Nishikori bounced back and managed to overcome his revered opponent to claim bronze. If he had been playing the match for himself, he might have lost his passion and collapsed under the pressure.
“I had a fervent wish to deliver at least some kind of good news to Japan, which served as added motivation to win and helped me bring out my best - particularly during difficult phases. I was able to keep my cool throughout and, of course, didn’t give up until the end. I felt I could give my all to this match to make the people supporting me happy, even if there had only been one or two of them. I was empowered by my supporters and have learned a lot from this experience,” he said.
2016 Getty Images
“Tennis is my favourite hobby. It is like building plastic models for me”
Nishikori turned 30 at the end of 2019 and is now regarded as a veteran player. Even so, he still finds himself improving on a daily basis. He is always looking for something new and interesting to keep him occupied, so the three-time Olympian regularly modifies his training routine to keep his motivation high and constantly tries to find new ways to have fun. His shot variation has expanded over the years, enabling him to further increase his enjoyment of tennis.
Recently, he has taken more opportunities to watch other sports in order to gain new inspiration. At a recent table tennis match, he was particularly impressed by HARIMOTO Tomokazu’s play. In addition to enjoying the similarity between table tennis and tennis, perhaps Nishikori saw something of his younger self in the world-class 16-year-old.
“The shots were so fast in table tennis that I felt like walking up closer to watch. The players must have been making shot decisions within a matter of a fraction of a second. Tennis players hardly have any time to think, but table tennis players have even less. I was amazed at the world of split-second competition,” he commented.
(c) Tokyo 2020
Nishikori’s goal for the Tokyo 2020 Games is to do his best in every match. At the Beijing 2008 Games, he had never felt as tense in his professional career; at London 2012, he gained self-confidence by defeating a number of world-class players, and at Rio 2016, he clinched a bronze medal and delighted his fans in Japan. At each Olympic Games, he has gained unforgettable memories that have formed an essential part of his being.
“I’m looking forward to Tokyo 2020. I hope to make it a meaningful experience,” he said.
When asked what tennis meant to him, he pondered for a while and said, with a gentle smile: “Tennis is my profession, but it’s also rather like my favourite hobby. I play tennis with the same level of enthusiasm as building plastic models, and I hope to achieve complete mastery in the sport.”
Despite having been through challenging competitions, Nishikori’s passion remains intense. The source of his strength lies in the way he enjoys tennis as his “hobby”, just like “building plastic models”.