Sugita Storming Into The Spotlight In Cincy
A maiden ATP World Tour title, first Grand Slam match win, career-high Emirates ATP Ranking and now a first Masters 1000 quarter-final. If you ask Yuichi Sugita if he's playing the best tennis of his career, the answer is a resounding 'yes'.
Japanese tennis has been on the rise over the past decade, thanks in large part to Kei Nishikori's Top 5 breakthrough and statement as one of the game's most formidable threats. The nation has also experienced a surge of Top 100 stalwarts, including Yoshihito Nishioka, Taro Daniel, Go Soeda and Tatsuma Ito, but none of Nishikori's countrymen have experienced the success that 28-year-old Sugita is enjoying in 2017.
"Many players are having their good results after 28 or even 30," Sugita told ATPWorldTour.com. "Actually I'm not so surprised about this, because tennis takes more time to reach your top level. I kept trying and I'm going to keep going.
"[My ranking] is big news for Japan, but we have Kei, so actually it's not as big news as him! But it's good. And he's a good player. He's the revolution for Japan. I'm really just trying to do the best I can. His results have helped me a lot to improve my ranking."
On the heels of a first ATP World Tour title in Antalya and an impressive three ATP Challenger Tour crowns, in Yokohama, Shenzhen and Surbiton, the Sendai native is breaking new ground in rising to a career-high No. 43 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. It is the second-highest position of any Japanese player in history, behind only Nishikori.
In beating Adrian Mannarino for the Antalya Open title, Sugita also became just the third player from Japan to ever win on the ATP World Tour, alongside Nishikori and Shuzo Matsuoka. He describes the moment as a huge honour.
"This year I won three Challengers in Japan, China and England," added Sugita. "After that I was really confident to play tournaments. It all happened so soon. After one Challenger in England, I went straight to Antalya and it's been a big change. It didn't feel like a big wall to make the Top 50. I'm happy.
"Antalya was a great week for me. It was my first semi-final and then I won the tournament. It was a great opportunity to play many good players. It was big news for Japan, because I'm the third player to win a title.
"So I'm very proud that I won my first title. For sure it was the most emotional moment in my career. I remember a lot of things. I'd played lower level tournaments for 10 years and I was just so happy to win an ATP title. When I go back to Japan, a lot of media come to the tennis court and ask a lot of things. I'm happy about that."
I got it !!!!! This is my 3rd title of the year !!!— 杉田祐一 / Yuichi SUGITA (@sugitayuichi88) June 11, 2017
Sugita isn't finished climbing in 2017 and he's proving that his game translates to all surfaces. All three ATP World Tour quarter-finals this year have come on different surfaces. In addition to a quarter-final finish on the clay of Barcelona and title on the lawns of Antalya, he has battled into the last eight this week at the Western & Southern Open - his best result at a Masters 1000 event.
A first-round upset of 13th seed Jack Sock - his biggest career victory - has been followed by impressive comeback wins over Joao Sousa and Karen Khachanov. Next up: seventh seed Grigor Dimitrov on Friday.
"Every match is a great opportunity here for me in Cincinnati. It means a higher ranking for me and I'm just happy to stay on the tennis court. I'm trying to enjoy it and I'm really excited to play great players."
What does Sugita say is the difference in 2017? What is his formula for success? The Japanese believes it has been an all-around balance, with changes in mindset proving to be most critical.
"[When I started playing] I needed to try a new game style for a small player. For me, I don't have a big serve, so I needed to make a lot of returns and have quick reactions. Those are the most important things for me.
"Most of the changes were mental. Now I can keep the same level throughout three sets and the match... In general it is definitely a great year for me. I've tried to be positive and I've been careful with injuries. I have a good balance now: physically, mentally and technically. I feel good and I'm positive."