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The Rise Of Japanese Tennis

Australian Open Special

Japanese Tennis© 2012 The Asahi Shimbun/Getty ImagesThe hopes of Japanese tennis: Tatsuma Ito, Kei Nishikori and Go Soeda celebrate their qualification for the London 2012 Olympics at Wimbledon.

Thanks to the example set by Shuzo Matsuoka and Kei Nishikori, DEUCE learns how tennis has become a popular sport in Japan.

Hard work has paid off for Japanese tennis. Kei Nishikori may be the nation’s flag bearer, but he is by no means a one-man operation. Three other players – Hiroki Moriya, Tatsuma Ito and Go Soeda – from the land of the rising sun, joined the World No. 18 in the 2012 US Open singles draw. Many nations would hope for such a number.

“For sure, Kei Nishikori doing well at the 2012 Australian Open gave motivation to many Japanese players and also the reality that they also can do it,” says Masahide Sakamoto, a UNIQLO tour manager. “Kei made them believe that Japanese players can do it. Also, we cannot exclude the fact that we had the London Olympics. For Japanese people, the Olympics is a huge deal. The Olympics gave them extra motivation to push up their [Emirates ATP] Ranking.”

NishikoriSoeda’s coach, Davide Sanguinetti, agrees with Sakamoto on the self-belief factor.

“Now, they do believe in themselves,” says Sanguinetti. “Especially at hard-court events, where they have more experience.”

Soeda openly admits that Nishikori has led by example. Nishikori has given Japanese players the confidence that they too can compete on the ATP World Tour.

“We had many players around the same ranking and that created a rivalry,” says Soeda. “We were able to push each other. And we had Nishikori as our goal. He has pulled us up. It also helped that when we travel, we can practise together, go eat, hang out and relax together. We need that on the tour.”

"Matsuoka did pretty much everything for tennis in Japan."

Professional club tennis and competitive adult and high school leagues have long established roots in Japan, which has dozens of community and regional tennis associations. Japanese manufacturers Dunlop and Yonex are well established brands, while UNIQLO showed just how popular the sport is in the country by signing World No. 1 Novak Djokovic as its global ambassador. 

MatsuokaMuch of Japan’s bug for tennis centred on the career of Shuzo Matsuoka. Tall, strong and good looking, his dramatic game style resembled more of a bansai charge than a strategic approach to the net. With victories over two former World No. 1s, Pete Sampras (1991-Canada) and Stefan Edberg (1992-Queen's Club), and two wins over former No. 2-ranked Goran Ivanisevic (1992-Queen's Club, 1995-Moscow), Matsuoka inspired the nation and in the process became a cultural icon. Even today, Matsuoka appears regularly on dozens of televisions commercials each year. Ironically, it was his 1995 Wimbledon quarter-final loss to Sampras that really spawned a tennis boom in Japan.

If a loss can inspire a nation, one can only imagine the effect that Nishikori’s historic win at the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships in Tokyo last year must be having on Japanese children today.

Shuzo Matsuoka did pretty much everything for tennis in Japan,” says Sakamoto. “The main reason that he is on TV every day is that he wants people to love tennis and know the sport of tennis. Shuzo is very famous in Japan, but he still says to people, ‘I am Shuzo Matsuoka the tennis player’. I don't know anyone else that cares more about Japanese tennis. Shuzo is my hero and every tennis players’ hero in Japan.”

SuzukiAfter Matsuoka’s retirement, there was a period of relative stalemate - save for the talented Takao Suzuki. Coached by ATP World Tour veteran Claudio Pistolesi, Suzuki often saved his best tennis for the home soil. There were signs of greatness, including one match, in particular, back in 2006, when he took World No. 1 Roger Federer to three thrilling sets in a Tokyo quarter-final, before eventually losing 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(3).

“I was able to practise with Matsuoka, which allowed me to gain valuable experience on what type of balls professional players hit, and what it took to become a professional tennis player,” recalls Suzuki. “Now, since Kei's ranking has gone up, other Japanese players on tour are able to believe that they too can also do better.”

Matsuoka was coached by Bob Brett, who now oversees Marin Cilic’s game. Long after Matsuoka retired, the pair developed the Shuzo Challenge, a talent identification camp that brought the best young juniors together each year. Sakamoto says, “Everyone goes through the Shuzo Challenge.

"Soeda was a key factor for success."

“The Shuzo Challenge has a huge role in Japanese men's tennis success. Matsuoka and Brett are consistently tough and teach young kids that there is no easy way out. They teach fundamentals of tennis and most importantly, how to be a man.”

In typical fashion, Brett politely declined to be interviewed, instead preferring to give credit to the Japanese coaches and handful of foreign coaches, who have toured with Japanese players like Pistolesi, Sanguinetti, Cesar Castaneda and Braen Aneiros. But there is no mistaking Brett’s finger prints on Japanese tennis. They include good technique, intelligent scheduling and a ‘work hard, but work smart’ attitude.

Matsuoka and Suzuki showed Japanese children that they could forge a career in professional tennis. However, in order to be successful, Japan needed to address a few areas, namely leaving the domestic tour for the great unknown of the international circuit.

SoedaGo Soeda was a key factor for success in the rise of Japan's tennis,” claims Sakamoto. “Go played Futures two years ago and mostly Challengers in 2011. He was just another Japanese player. Kei was a special talent, but players thought, ‘If Go can do it, I can do it’. All the players thought that way.”

Soeda admits, “I believe that I was able to give them hope to play on the ATP World Tour, not just Challengers. I was able to break down the wall for many young players to gain confidence.”

“Apart from Kei who trains outside of Japan, Go – who was brought up training in the country – helped to encourage players that they can also do better,” says Suzuki. Soeda’s coach, Sanguinetti, confesses, “He is a good competitor. Because even when we practise, he hates to make a mistake. For example, he can play unbelievably well, but if he misses the last ball he always remembers that ball and not the 99 per cent of his session.”

There is one more vital factor that has contributed to the success of Japanese tennis.

"I feel a lot of pride to be able to say I am a Japanese professional tennis player."

Says Suzuki, “Since the development of Japan’s National Tennis Centre five years ago, the athletes who come back to Japan have a better training facility.” Ito agrees, adding, “I think the Centre in Tokyo was a big help. It allows us to train together when we are at home and brings the best of Japanese tennis together for quality practise and competition.”

If the expression ‘a chain is as strong as its weakest link’, then Japanese tennis definitely has a bright future.

You only need to consider the curious case of Katsushi Fukuda. At the age of 36 and at No. 1226 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, one could forgive him if he stopped grinding it out on the ITF Futures circuit. But no. This past December, Fukada participated in a gruelling pre-season training camp and has a full schedule planned for 2013.

“Shuzo's Wimbledon quarter-final performance has inspired me with courage to fight for my dreams no matter the obstacle,” says Fukuda. “And now Nishikori has inspired me by what we Japanese can do. I love tennis and really enjoy looking at the results of my fellow countrymen. I feel a lot of pride to be able to say I am a Japanese professional tennis player.”

While baseball and football still rule the sports pages of Japanese newspapers, thanks to Matsuoka blazing the trail, Suzuki lighting the path, the emergence of Nishikori and the persistence of Soeda, Japanese tennis has climbed an enormous cliff.

Now it is up to Nishikori to raise the bar yet again.

Editor’s Note: In 2013 the format of DEUCE changes from a four-times-a-year magazine format to a regular series of rolling features. We feel that this new format will allow us to provide you with more timely and relevant features about the stars of the ATP World Tour.

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