MELBOURNE, Australia – Kei Nishikori keeps accumulating the tennis milestones for Japanese men, always remaining conscious of but not concerned about the expectations being heaped upon him.
Nishikori notched another mark Monday when he became the first Japanese man to reach the quarter-finals of the Australian Open since the Open Era began in 1968 with an exhausting 2-6, 6-2, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 victory over former finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France.
“I never feel the pressure,” he said. “You know, it’s very honour to make a lot of history, to be the No. 1 player in Japan. But that never gives me the pressure.”
The 22-year-old Nishikori also matched the best Grand Slam performance ever by a Japanese male in the Open Era — Shuzo Matsuoka’s run to the quarter-finals of Wimbledon in 1995.
He’s now got a chance to better Matsuoka’s mark when he plays No. 4-ranked Andy Murray on Wednesday.
Whether he’ll be able to recover in time for the contest is the biggest question. Nishikori tussled with Tsonga for 3 1/2 hours in the direct sun with temperatures reaching 34C — his second five-set match of the tournament.
Murray, meanwhile, was off the court in 49 minutes after his fourth-round opponent, Mikhail Kukushkin, retired with a hip injury after dropping the first two sets.
“Andy, we played last year, end of last year. He kind of destroyed me,” Nishikori said of his 6-3, 6-0 drubbing by Murray in the semifinals at the Shanghai Masters. “Yeah, it’s going to be tough, but I try to do my best tennis.”
Even if he comes up short, he has already captivated a country like no male player before.
So many Japanese reporters went to watch his match against Tsonga at Hisense Arena, for instance, there were no seats available for journalists who arrived late. Matsuoka has been sending him emails after each of his matches and Kimiko Date-Krumm, Nishikori’s mixed doubles partner at Melbourne Park, was also in the stands on Monday to cheer him on.
Date-Krumm is one of a long line of Japanese female tennis players who have excelled in professional tennis. She was a fixture in the top 10 at the height of her career, reaching a career-high ranking of No. 4 and making the semifinals of three different majors. At 41 years old, she’s still playing, too.
Ai Sugiyama was also a top 10 singles player and won doubles titles at the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
But the men have never had the same kind of success. Matsuoka was the most accomplished Japanese male player of the last 40 years, but his ranking topped out at No. 46.
Shortly after that a 14-year-old Nishikori arrived at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Florida — without being able to speak a word of English. He was dubbed “Project 45” for his goal of someday topping Matsuoka’s ranking.
His development came quickly and at the age of 18, he became the youngest man to win an ATP title since Lleyton Hewitt captured his first in 1998 at the age of 16.
It took Nishikori a few more years, however, to get close to that prized No. 45 ranking.
After hiring Brad Gilbert as one of his coaches at the end of 2010, Nishikori finished last season with a flourish. He reached his first Masters semifinal at Shanghai and finally broke Matsuoka’s mark, rocketing all the way up the rankings to No. 24.
Now, the speedy Nishikori, who has learned to speak English during his time in the United States, has his sights set on another first for the Asian guys — a Grand Slam title.
“Hopefully I can be like Li Na for the men,” he said of the Chinese player who won the French Open women’s title last year after reaching the Australian Open final.