Japan’s Kei Nishikori, the 18-year-old training in Florida at the IMG/Bollettieri Academy, wasn’t on anyone’s radar at Delray Beach, even after he qualified into the main draw. Last year he beat two non-Top 50 players to reach the quarters at the ATP event in Indianapolis, but his 5-6 win-loss record at the Challenger level didn’t have sponsors lining up with pens in hand.
My how that changed in one week in Delray Beach.
Nishikori is the toast of Japan and his adopted Florida after fighting off four match points in the Delray Beach semifinals against Sam Querrey, then coming from a set down to stun James Blake in the final.
By reaching the semis in Delray, Nishikori received a ‘special exempt’ into the main draw this week at the SAP Open in San Jose; since it is the same level tournament as Delray, and by reaching the semis, Nishikori could not make it out to California in time for the qualifying. Little did anyone know, the 18-year-old would still be around by the time of the trophy presentation, and on the receiving end of it.
“I was working so hard these last two months,” said Nishikori on a conference call today. “I was injured, my back, and now it’s okay. My serve was good last week. I get some aces and it was getting so much better. And the mentally was so strong, I saved so many, like, break points, I was so aggressive, and yeah, I mean, mentally was so strong.”
Nishikori is still working on his English, if you can’t tell, four years ago basically only knowing “hello” when he came to Florida.
In San Diego Nishikori opens against Diego Hartfield, and tournament organizers are keeping their fingers crossed as a win would likely mean a second-round meeting against top seed Andy Roddick. Blake was overflowing with compliments for Nishikori after the Delray final, but don’t look for Roddick to be singing the teen’s praises. Like when he faced John Isner for the first time in the final at Washington last year, Roddick is all business when it comes to putting the beat-down on upstarts in first-time meetings.
Nishikori says he will have to reset his goals after the week in Delray.
“My goal was to win Challenger this year and I didn’t expect that,” Nishikori said. “I was so happy and when I get back to the academy, 20 guys was surprising me, and like a hundred of e-mail. I arrive like ten o’clock and they waiting and they gave me cake and gave me speech.”
Rocketing to No. 131 on the ATP Rankings, Japan’s newest top-ranked player says the win over Blake has given him the feeling he can beat anybody…even Roger Federer.
In fact, Nishikori let slip that last year in Miami at the Sony Ericsson Open, an event he played as a junior, he was Federer’s practice partner when he took a set off the Swiss.
“I was so nervous in the beginning but he was so nice, and we played a couple sets but I won. Yeah, but it was practice,” Nishikori said. “Yeah, that make me confident.”
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