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Is it Nishikori’s time to shine at last?

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Originally published on: 23/01/12 11:11

Kei Nishikori made history with his 2-6 6-2 6-1 3-6 6-3 victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, becoming the first Japanese man to reach the quarter-finals in Melbourne since 1932.

Negotiating the first few rounds after being handed a fairly kind draw – bypassing Julien Benneteau, Matthew Ebden and Stephane Robert before his scalp of Tsonga – the 22-year-old now faces Andy Murray, having managed just three games against the Scot in their only other tour meeting in the semi-finals of the Shanghai Masters last year.

“He kind of destroy[ed] me,” Nishikori remembers of that clash with the world No.4. Their upcoming match, however, will be different. “I have no pressure now,” believes the Japenese player. “He’s one of the players I have to play. I [can] learn a lot of things from him.”

Ahead of the biggest encounter of his life, we look back at his story so far.

Kei Nishikori in a nutshell
At the age of 14 Nishikori left his parents behind in the mountainous Japanese prefecture of Shimane to pursue his dream of becoming a professional tennis player at the IMG Bollettieri Academy in Florida. He arrived without a word of English but, in the space of just four years, the diminutive right-hander found himself propelled into the spotlight to carry the hopes of Japanese tennis on his young shoulders. At 18 he burst on to the global scene, earning $303,269 in a single year in 2008 having come through qualifying to beat then-world No.12 James Blake for his first career title in Delray Beach before stunning David Ferrer to reach the fourth round of the US Open.

Despite the early promise, an elbow injury the following year blunted his hopes of yet more big results. Nishikori contested only the first three months of the 2009 season before picking up the injury and, after undergoing surgery, didn’t return to the ATP Tour until April 2010. He leapt 322 ranking spots to return to the top 100 before the year was out but it was last season that he truly hopped back on the path toward delivering on his promise.

The 22-year-old made the semi-finals in Delray Beach, Eastbourne, Kuala Lumpur and at the Masters 1000 event in Shanghai, as well as finals in Houston and Basel. Somewhat remarkably, given the phenomenal year the Serb had in 2011, he defeated (a somewhat creaky) Novak Djokovic 6-0 in the third set to reach the final of the latter tournament in Switzerland.

Of particular importance for Nishikori from that run of results was the rankings leap he took from No.47 to No.30 after winning in Shanghai, ensuring he surpassed Shuzo Matsuoka to become the highest-ever ranked Japenese player.

Tsonga on Nishikori
“It’s tough to play against him because he runs a lot and everything’s coming back. Even when he’s far in the point, he comes back on his line.”

Federer on Nishikori
“I always knew he had great potential. For me it was nice to see the breakthrough he did in Shanghai and then also in Basel, using the wildcard to his advantage. I’m sure he’s going to be a wonderful player, but only the future will tell if he’s going to move into the top 10, top 5. But I definitely think he has the potential and he’s a wonderful player and a very nice person.”

Novak Djokovic on Nishikori (after losing to the 22 year old in Basel)
“He was getting impossible balls back and really making me play every shot.”

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