Kei Nishikori is expanding horizons for tennis players from Japan - Washington Post

Koichi and Tomiko Tanaka planned the trip, less vacation than pilgrimage, back in April. Their itinerary took them from their home in Tokyo to Dulles, 12 hours in the air to spend eight days in Washington.

On Tuesday night, a day after their arrival, they settled into their courtside seats for the first round of the Citi Open. Tanaka wore a tennis shirt with three thick stripes -- black across the shoulders, white in the middle, blue at the bottom. He chose the outfit specifically because it was the same as the man they had come to see.

The Tanakas came to Washington for one express reason, to watch Kei Nishikori, the best Japanese player of all time and probably the biggest Asian-born tennis star in the sport's history. They will leave two days after the tournament ends. "In case it rains," Koichi Tanaka explained, smiling. "I left a spare day."

Nishikori commands devotion like no other tennis player born in his country. He entered the Citi Open ranked fifth in the world, almost a year removed from his breakthrough performance at the U.S. Open, where he reached the final in a major, a feat never before achieved by an Asian-born man.

Nishikori came to the United States at 14 with the goal of going further than anyone ever had from his country. Now 25, Nishikori has surpassed his initial goals and moved on to broadening the notion of what is possible for a Japanese tennis player.

[Kei Nishikori's tournament wins and losses in 2015]

Koichi, a salary man in the coal business, and Tomiko had never seen Nishikori play in person. Tomiko scored an autograph, which she displayed proudly in an artist's notebook, underneath a hand-sketched large red dot, the mark of the Japanese flag. They cheered him as he beat Australian James Duckworth in three sets, overcoming a tiebreak loss in the first set, setting up a second-round match Thursday night.

"It was very exciting," Tomiko Tanaka said. "He is very soft in his person. But in the game, he became like a samurai."

Nishikori first came to the United States as one of the first beneficiaries of the Morita Tennis Fund. Hoping to bolster tennis in Japan, Sony CEO Masaaki Morita gave scholarships to promising young players to train at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

When Nishikori left home, he spoke no English and carried grand ambitions. Coaches at IMG nicknamed him "Project 45." No Japanese man ever was ranked higher than 46th in the world. Nishikori made it his aim to surpass Shuzo Matsuoka to set a new mark.

After a steady climb, Nishikori started 2011 ranked 98th in the world. By April, working with new coach Dante Bottini from IMG Academy, he rocketed to No  48. Three weeks later, he had moved to 46th, matching Matsuoka's Japanese record.

On the verge, Nishikori's climb halted. He dropped to 53rd, then 60th. By August, he had ascended back to 47th -- and then promptly dipped to 55th two weeks later. So close to the goal he had set, to claiming the identity he envisioned for himself, he faltered.

"That was a nightmare," Bottini, who remains his coach, said Wednesday. "Especially for him, he was having such a hard time. You could tell he felt the pressure so much. It was always, 'If you win this match, you're going to break the Project 45' -- boom. He was 6-2, 2-0 up -- boom, he loses 7-6 in the third. In the final, against this guy he should have beat -- boom, choked so bad, lose. It was a nightmare."

Finally, in October, Nishikori broke through, reaching the semifinals of the Shanghai Rolex Masters. In the rankings released Oct. 17, 2011, Nishikori leapt from 47th to No. 30. Shuzo Matsuoka had been passed. Project 45 had been accomplished.

He had both broken a barrier and lifted a burden. The next week, Nishikori beat Novak Djokovic, then ranked first in the world, in a semifinal match. He played with freedom. He finished the year ranked No. 25.

"He got past it," Bottini said, "and then he http://texastennisopen.com really got past it."

If not for injuries, Bottini said, Nishikori might have burst into the world's elite before last year's U.S. Open. Instead, it came with his run in the U.S. Open, which included another upset of Djokovic. Suddenly, he had gone further in a major tournament than any Asian-born player in history.

For Nishikori, it meant a new project: To be No. 1 in the world. "I'm not saying that is going to happen this year," Bottini said. "That is one of his goals for sure."

For his followers, his success meant something more.

"Everything," said Chuong Nguyen, a 35-year-old who was born in Vietnam and now lives in Annandale, as he watched Nishikori's first-round victory. "He's the best Asian tennis player ever. Michael Chang, he was good, too. But he was an American. He wasn't really, truly from Asia."

Early in his career, Bottini said, Nishikori took the burden of representing his country to the court. He has now lived in America for so long and risen so high in the sport, he no longer does. His success still seeps into his countrymen. Last week, he visited IMG and posed with the academy's nine Japanese students.

"Because Nishikori is doing well, everybody watches tennis," said Go Soeda, a 30-year-old Japanese player ranked 102nd. "It's a good movement for Japan."

On Wednesday afternoon, Nishikori headed to an early-afternoon practice on Match Court 1. A man blurted the Japanese greeting, "Ohayo gozaimasu!" and snapped a photograph with a long-lensed camera. Nishikori nodded and walked on to the court.

Koichi and Tomiko Tanaka had returned to Rock Creek Park. In their hotel room, they had left the rice cooker they had packed; they planned to make onigiri -- rice balls wrapped in crunchy seaweed. The Tanakas ambled around the grounds and stopped to watch Nishikori practice, wearing all white and sweating in the heat.

Once his session ended, the Tanakas rushed behind a white chain-link rope by the court's exit. Tomiko held out a piece of cloth for Nishikori to sign. Koichi raised his camera and snapped a picture, capturing a moment he had come so far to see.

Kelyn Soong contributed to this report.

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