Up until yesterday, no male from the continent of Asia had ever reached a grand slam final. That all changed when 24 year
old Kei Nishikori upset world number one Novak Djokovic in four sets to cap off one of the most astonishing underdog runs in recent memory.
Every sporting underdog has a classic underdog narrative, Nishikori is no different. A young prodigy from Japan, Kei arrived in America at the age of 14, shy, retiring and unable to speak English.
He may have been quiet off the court but his talent on it spoke volumes. Living and training at the Bollettieri Academy in Florida, the tennis star making factory that has aided the development of ten world number ones, Nishikori honed his skills and embarked on the now infamous assignment dubbed “Project 45”. Japan’s greatest ever male tennis player Shuzo Matsuoka had reached a career best ranking of 46th, Nishikori was charged with the task of surpassing Matsuoka’s ranking and firmly entrenching himself in the world’s top 50. Many thought that if he continued to work hard and make progress, maybe just maybe, the young Japanese star would move into the world’s top 30, the top 20 at a stretch but no further, a tour stalwart perhaps but not a world beater.
One of the few who envisioned Nishikori’s rise to the upper reaches of the sport was 13 time Grand Slam Champion Rafael Nadal. After being pushed close by a then 18 year old Nishikori at Queens Club in 2008 he remarked “He is very, very good. He is going to be top 10 for sure, top five”
Nadal’s prophetic words would follow Nishikori around the globe as he marched up the world rankings. He eclipsed the number 45 ranking in 2010 and hasn’t looked back since. Up until this point 2014 has been a banner year for Nishikori. He went on a tear this spring, winning 14 matches in a row en route to clinching ATP Tour titles in Memphis and Barcelona. Nishikori even had Nadal reeling on his beloved clay in the final at Madrid, leading by a set before suffering a back injury that that eventually forced him to retire.
Off the back of his superb form, the 24 year old entered the World’s top 10 for the first time this May. An achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact Nishikori’s initial target was to break the top 50. The Japenese Number one has proven to be a master at exceeding expectations, but no one would have predicted his spirited run to the final of The U.S Open this week. Until a few days before the tournament Nishikori was unsure he would play the final grand slam of the year after having a cyst removed from his right foot. Not only has Nishikori played the US Open, he has dragged his 5 ft 11, 150 lb frame to the championship match. Consecutive upsets over top 10 players Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka and now Djokovic have seen him prove his mettle and do what he does best; defy the odds.
In tomorrow evening’s final, Nishikori will face a man who is quite literally the final hurdle; 6 ft 6 Croatian Marin Cilic. The 14th seed upended Roger Federer in a second semi-final upset. Grand slam champions from Croatia? We’ve had those, but never have we seen a man from Japan or Asia for that matter lift one of tennis’ four most prestigious titles. From project 45 to Project Grand slam? The stage is set for Kei to conquer once again.