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Counting On Kei

DEUCE Australian Open 2012

Nishikori, Basel, November 2011© Getty ImagesJapan's Kei Nishikori went 3-5 versus Top 10 opponents in 2011.

Kei Nishikori went someway in uplifting a nation after tragedy last year. Now the Japanese star is finally poised to fulfil his potential on the ATP World Tour.

It is a memory that will last a lifetime. The natural disaster that rocked Japan on 11 March, 2011 changed the landscape of the country forever. With Mother Nature unleashing one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded, triggering a rampant tsunami, tragedy was imminent. Thousands perished with little warning, fires raged at their own volition, causing a nuclear crisis, and the country was left with an unfathomable amount of destruction. It was a day that impacted millions of lives. News that leaves an everlasting impression doesn't happen often. But for Kei Nishikori, the images will be forever seared into his soul.

"I was thinking, 'is it okay to play tennis?'"

Nishikori was preparing for the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells when his manager Olivier van Lindonk and friends in Japan called him to disclose the news. Speaking to DEUCE at the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy last month, he said, "It was a helpless feeling being so far away and not able to do anything. My match was hours after the news broke, so I discussed what to do with my team. I decided to play as I felt it was the only way to show my support."

Adorning a black ribbon to honour the earthquake victims, Nishikori gave an inspired performance, but lost a tight three-setter to Igor Andreev. "It was a really tough moment for me," says Nishikori. "I was thinking, 'is it okay to play tennis?' I was really worried about Japan. So many people died and others couldn’t survive without food with all the destruction. The pictures were very surreal."

Nishikori, Relief for Japan, March 2011In the days after the catastrophe, Nishikori partnered with the American Red Cross and Ace Authentic, facilitating donations on his Facebook page, raising proceeds of $100,000. Nishikori's peers played an integral part in generating additional relief aid, donating memorabilia for a charity auction, but their actions didn't stop there. At the Sony Ericsson Open, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic helped spearhead a charity football match in Miami, pitting ATP World Tour stars against the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, with a fundraising dinner taking place after the game. "So many players came to me asking how things were and if they could help," says Nishikori. "It was really an honour to be Japanese, because all the players helped me help Japan. It's always a tough situation, but at the same time, it was good to feel all the support. And now it's getting better, so I'm really proud."

Slowly, Japan is on the road to recovery. In the aftermath of rebuilding, the nation has turned to sport as an outreach of optimism. Their national women's football team upset the United States in the World Cup final, Kohei Uchiruma captured the men's artistic gymnastics all-around title for the third year in a row and Miki Ando won the women's figure skating world title.

Matsuoka joins Nadal, Nishikori, Tokyo, October 2010Equally as uplifting as those athletic accomplishments, was the season Nishikori put together on the ATP World Tour last year, when he surpassed Shuzo Matsuoka to become Japan's highest-ranked male player in the Open Era. Nishikori says, "That was one of my main goals in 2011. It was good to get through the year by playing consistently to break Shuzo's record. I talked to him after that and he said, 'it's not your final goal.' He told me I can do more and continue doing my best to get a higher ranking."

Tommy Haas, a friend since 22-year-old Nishikori relocated to train at Bollettieri's as a teenager, couldn't be happier for the rising star. "I've known him since he was a young boy. He's a very nice kid; very shy, but a very sweet, hard-working person. It's great to see his success," the German told DEUCE at the Brisbane International.

"I'm very happy for him that he beat Matsuoko's record, which was obviously a big deal. He's a very dangerous player. He's got that 'Bollettieri style', with the big forehand and quick feet. He's very eager to improve and he has."

Nick Bollettieri agrees with Haas' assessment. "He's a great shot maker and a fantastic mover," said the 2012 International Tennis Hall Of Fame nominee. "What we've worked on is getting a little more zip on his second serve so it's not attackable. I feel if he doesn't get injured, he has a darn good chance of getting into the single digits in the rankings."

"The key is not to direct him all the time."

Injuries are a concern for Nishikori, who missed a solid portion of the 2009 and 2010 seasons with a right elbow injury, and is yet to play a full season on the ATP World Tour. Having never had surgery to treat an injury before, it took a while before Nishikori and his team opted to have the procedure. "It took me four to five months to decide on having surgery as I was really nervous about it," admits Nishikori. "It was a tough decision. When I was doing rehab, it was hard for me not being on the court and having to do the same exercises over and over."

Nishikori, Belgrade, April 2011The resulting period of inactivity caused Nishikori to drop off the South African Airways ATP Rankings. Working himself back into action on the ATP Challenger Tour, Nishikori managed to break back into the Top 100 by the end of 2010, winning four Challenger events in Savannah, Sarasota, Binghamton and Knoxville. By April 2011, Nishikori was sharp enough to reach his first ATP World Tour final in three years at the US Men's Clay Court Championship in Houston, where he fell to Ryan Sweeting. Though he had mixed results over the next five months, his game soared when he hit Asian soil. Having led Japan to the Davis Cup World Group for the first time in 27 years, Nishikori produced his best ATP World Tour Masters 1000 result at the Shanghai Rolex Masters, defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Alexandr Dolgopolov en route to the semi-finals.

Nishikori exceeded his expectations, recalling, "It was really surprising for me. I only played in the [ATP World Tour] Masters 1000 events a couple of times. Even winning my second-round match was a first. I couldn't even imagine getting to the semi-finals, so it was a great feeling, especially with wins against Tsonga and other guys, who were ranked higher than me, like Dolgopolov and Robin Haase."

Vaulting to No. 30 in the South African Airways Rankings after Shanghai, it was only fitting that Nishikori gave his best performance at the Swiss Indoors Basel in his debut as Japan's highest-ranked player in tour history. After advancing to the semi-finals, Nishikori stunned top-ranked Novak Djokovic, who at the time, had lost just three matches all season. The victory gave Nishikori another distinction, becoming the first Japanese player to defeat a World No. 1. "That match, I was down a set and 4-5, 0/30, so I was two points away from losing the match," reflects Nishikori. "I came back strong and after that, I played almost my best tennis. He wasn't 100 per cent, but I still played great tennis, so I was really happy to beat the No. 1 ranked player. It also felt special because Djokovic was winning the entire season."

Nishikori, Federer, Basel, November 2011Though Nishikori lost to Roger Federer in the final, he rose to World No. 24. Bollettieri credits coach Dante Bottini for staying patient and not overloading Nishikori with information. "His coach Dante is fantastic, because he doesn't over speak to Kei," says Bollettieri. "With Kei, the more you tell him, the more complicated it gets for him. It's almost like when I worked with Boris Becker."

With a language barrier and homesickness far behind Nishikori, the legendary coach has seen a change in his pupil's confidence - seeing him take an active role in his player-coach relationships. "Kei's beginning to speak up a lot more and that's a good sign," Bollettieri says. "The key is not to direct him all the time. He's the captain of the ship. My job is every once in a while, I go on the court for 10 to 15 minutes, give a couple tips and motivation, and that's all."

"He has the potential to do really well in the big tournaments."

Nishikori is more than satisfied with the team he has in place, proclaiming, "The advantage of having multiple coaches is that I get a lot of good advice. Especially with Nick as I see him once or twice a week when I'm in Bradenton. He always gives me good pointers when I'm doing something wrong. And the other guys I work with are great, so I'm happy with the way things are going."

Spending the off-season bulking up, improving his balance and working to build a stronger core, Nishikori has put in the miles to further his achievements in 2012. At the Australian Open, he will be seeded at a Grand Slam event for the first time. "It opens up more chances, but you still need some luck to get a good draw," Nishikori says. "It will be a different feeling than before, as I'm not used to being seeded at a Grand Slam. Hopefully, I won't be affected by pressure so I'll try to play the same."

Nishikori, Brisbane, January 2012Haas believes there are greater things to come for Nishikori, declaring, "He has the potential to do really well in the big tournaments. He's already broken the world's Top 30, so he's definitely going to be a force to be reckoned with in the future.

"He's working very hard physically off the court and trying to stay strong. He's always had a few nagging injuries here or there, which he has to be careful with, but he's putting in the effort and he's determined. I think he's got a lot of goals and I'm happy for him, glad that he's doing well."

If Nishikori can get through this season healthy, he just may give his nation a new eternal story that helps mend the souls of its people.

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