Commenting on Kei Nishikori's performance at the Japan Open in Tokyo the other day, ATP executive chairman Brad Drewett said: "Kei is a terrific player who is already a star at home in Japan and among the Top 20 players in the world ... Kei has a very bright future on the ATP World Tour."
As bureaucratic fluff goes, it was standard fare. But what Drewett did not say, and as a former player he surely knows, is that being a top 20 player and "star" in a nation starved for tennis champions is one thing -- actually winning your national open championships, if you're not named Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic, is quite another. Just ask Andy Murray, or the legion of British players who fell on their swords for 75 years in vain attempts to win the Big One at home.
In Murray's case it was (of course) Wimbledon. Nobody is going to confuse the Japan Open with Wimbledon, but these things can be relative. Fred Perry won Wimbledon three times running ending in 1936 and then became a shirt and cast a hex over the event that remains unbroken to this day. The Japanese had an even more painful source of national shame; no Japanese player had won the Japan Open. Ever.
The closest any player had previously come to winning in Japan was Shuzo Matsuoka, now 44 and a revered figure from Sapporo to Nagasaki. In 1992 Shuzo was the first Japanese to win an ATP tour title of any kind when he hopped over to South Korea and prevailed in Seoul.
But the pressure -- and quality of competition -- in Tokyo has always been of a different order of magnitude. Shuzo, a Wimbledon quarterfinalist in 1995, posted a career-high ranking of 46. But the best he could do in Tokyo was a quarterfinal in 1988, and it was just the second (and final) time in his entire career that he won two matches in a row in Tokyo.
Nishikori, just 22 but oft-injured, hit his stride last year and surpassed Matsuoka's best ranking and ultimately hit a career-high No. 16 in March. But winning in Japan? That was an entirely different matter because of past history and the inherent "home court" pressures. Nishikori had been as far as the third round in Tokyo on just one previous occasion.
Many pundits and fans assume that winning on the road is tougher than winning at home. Granted, tennis players are almost always playing "road" games, but that just makes doing well at home that much more challenging. Unless you tower above the competition -- say you're Novak Djokovic playing in the ATP 250 tournament you created in your hometown of Belgrade, Serbia -- the task of winning at home can be daunting. You're almost better off being a journeyman than a guy who just may have a shot.
You want so hard to do well. You want so much to make your countrymen proud. This could be your moment to show the folks what you've got. It can kill you, the expectations you create for yourself with the help of your countrymen and their longings.
Nishikori's accomplishment was burnished by the fact Tokyo is an ATP 500 with a strong field led by Olympic Games and U.S. Open singles champion Andy Murray and world No. 6 (and No. 2 seed) Tomas Berdych.
Nishikori took care of Berdych in the semis, but he had one more stress-inducing test: Milos Raonic knocked off top-seeded Andy Murray to make the final, and that meant Nishikori could really screw it up and blow a great chance to stake out "national hero" turf. But he handled the situation beautifully, and now he's looking to complete an Asian double in this week's Shanghai Masters 1000.
I imagine Nishikori is emotionally drained and physically fatigued after that run in Tokyo, but his bigger problem is that all the big dogs are sniffing around in Shanghai, starting with the men presently locked in what promises to be a bitter, weeks-long struggle for the year-end world No. 1 ranking, Federer and Djokovic.
That theme will quickly relegate Nishikori's win in Tokyo to the filing cabinet, but the glow it created will continue to burn within the winner -- and his countrymen.