Playback Rio: Kei Nishikori wins Japan's first tennis medal in 96 years

Kei Nishikori of Japan celebrates after winning the singles bronze medal match against Rafael Nadal of Spain at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games
Kei Nishikori of Japan celebrates after winning the singles bronze medal match against Rafael Nadal of Spain at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games

Japan won a total of 41 medals (12 gold, 8 silver, and 21 bronze) at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, but what thoughts crossed the minds of Japanese athletes as they appeared on the biggest stage of them all? In this series, we look back at the incredible events from Brazil that are still fresh in the collective memory of the next host country.

Japan's Nishikori takes Men's Tennis Singles bronze
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Result for men’s tennis singles bronze medal match

NISHIKORI Kei (Japan)

2 – 1 (6 – 2, 6 – 7, 6 – 3)

Rafael NADAL (Spain)

Time after time, NISHIKORI Kei was confronted by moments that tested his ability and mental toughness to the full. He found himself on the brink of defeat, facing a match point. Yet, he survived each to become the first Japanese tennis player to clinch an Olympic medal for 96 years.

“Though it’s a bronze, I’m still incredibly pleased to have won a medal. It particularly means a lot to me because I won it by defeating Rafael Nadal. It was fun to compete for my own country, which was different from the usual tours, and I’ve also gained self-confidence for moving further forward,” he said.

The bronze medal match against Nadal testified to Nishikori’s intrinsic value. The Japanese player controlled the match from the start and won the first set at 6-2. He continued accumulating games in the second set until the count reached 5-2, only one game away from victory, but Nadal bounced back from near defeat, taking one game after another in a proud display of what he is capable of as a career Grand Slam winner ‒ a winner of all four major championships.

Facing a tiebreak, Nishikori failed to stop the momentum and ended up dropping the second set.

“I became tense when the game count reached 5-2. Not only was Nadal playing better, but I had also become a little frustrated being overly aware of the medal, which affected my serves and strokes,” Nishikori recalled.

Kei Nishikori of Japan makes a backhand return during the singles bronze medal match against Rafael Nadal of Spain at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games
Kei Nishikori of Japan makes a backhand return during the singles bronze medal match against Rafael Nadal of Spain at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games
Julian Finney/Getty Images

However, Nishikori held on. As he moved into the third and final set, he switched his mentality, forcing himself to think: “If I can pull through this crisis, I will become a better player”.

He broke in the fourth game, taking advantage of Nadal’s error. The two players kept their respective service games until the ninth game. With a 5-3 lead, Nishikori accumulated points with his 'exceptionally good' serves and closed the match with a final powerful serve aimed at the Spanish player’s body.

“Olympic Games always provide me with opportunities to grow,” the Japanese tennis star stated.

Indeed, the Olympic Games Rio 2016 not only brought him a bronze medal, but also offered him a chance to demonstrate the mental toughness he has often called upon to pull through demanding matches.

The quarter-final match against French player Gaël Monfils was an especially dramatic turnaround. Trailing 3-6 in a third-set tiebreak, Nishikori was able to survive three match points.

Yet, believing that “Monfils is bound to lose concentration at some point in time”, he swept five consecutive points by turning the Frenchman’s rushed errors to his advantage and clinched an upset victory.

Kei Nishikori of Japan is congratulated by Rafael Nadal of Spain after winning the singles bronze medal match at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games
Kei Nishikori of Japan is congratulated by Rafael Nadal of Spain after winning the singles bronze medal match at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Though Nishikori had lost to Andy Murray in the semi-final, in the bronze medal match he smashed the seemingly insurmountable barrier of beating Nadal, against whom he had a 1-9 win-loss record.

Making his Olympic debut at Beijing 2008 Games, where he lost in round one, he had advanced to the quarter-finals at London 2012, and further stepped up his performance to win a bronze at Rio 2016. “I’m aware of my improvement both in terms of technique and self-confidence, which is allowing me to play at my current level. Four years ago, I was satisfied with advancing to the quarter-finals, but now, I feel I deserve to be in the semi-finals. That’s how far I’ve come,” he said.

Only 16 days after winning the bronze at the Rio 2016 Games, Nishikori played in the US Open, advancing to the semi-finals after avenging his loss to Murray in Rio in the quarter-final.

Nishikori’s fourth Olympic Games, which will be hosted on home soil, could see the star go even further.