Editor’s Note: ATPTour.com is resurfacing features to bring fans closer to their favourite players. This story was originally published on 22 February 2018.
Kei Nishikori didn’t want to play the 2008 Delray Beach Open for fear of being outclassed, even embarrassed. At 18 years of age, he didn’t think he belonged at tour-level at all.
Two weeks earlier, the Japanese teenager had lost in the third round of qualifying at an ATP Challenger Tour event in Dallas against KJ Hippensteel, who won a single tour-level match in his career. So how would Nishikori, World No. 244, make it through qualifying at an ATP Tour event?
“I told my coach I didn’t want to play in Delray because it’s a different level and [there’s] no way I’m going to win those tournaments,” Nishikori told ATPWorldTour.com. “But my coach pushed me to play.”
It’s a good thing Nishikori listened to his coach, Glenn Weiner. The rest, as they say, is history.
Ten years ago this week, Nishikori would go on one of the most memorable runs at an ATP Tour event in recent memory. The teenager won eight matches — saving 12 of 12 break points faced in a three-set second-round win against Amer Delic, saving four match points in the semi-finals against Sam Querrey, and finally, shocking World No. 12 James Blake 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 to win his first ATP Tour crown.
“I remember in my head I thought, ‘Well, James is probably going to win this tournament’,” Querrey said, recalling his loss.
“I thought, ‘Oh, wow. This is a big opportunity. I’m getting to play a qualifier in the final’,” Blake remembered.
But instead, Nishikori became the first Japanese tour-level titlist since Shuzo Matsuoka at 1992 Seoul and the youngest player to win a title, period, since former World No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt captured 1998 Adelaide as a 16-year-old.
Youngest ATP Tour Champions Since 2000 (as of 22 February 2018)
|Kei Nishikori||2008 Delray Beach||18 years, 1 month, 19 days|
|Rafael Nadal||2004 Sopot||18 years, 2 months, 12 days|
|Andy Roddick||2001 Atlanta||18 years, 7 months, 30 days|
|Andy Murray||2006 San Jose||18 years, 9 months, 4 days|
|Lleyton Hewitt||2000 Adelaide||18 years, 10 months, 23 days|
‘Project 45’ — the mission touting Nishikori’s pursuit of Matsuoka’s Japanese-best mark of No. 46 in the ATP Rankings, was underway. Yet, before the week started, the spotlight seemed distant.
“At that time, it was really hard to believe [in myself],” Nishikori admitted. “I was losing to guys ranked like 300 and I wasn’t playing well. I don’t know what happened.”
Well, it certainly worked. Knowing what we know today — Nishikori has ascended as high as No. 4 in the ATP Rankings, won 11 tour-level titles and earned 32 Top 10 victories — it is easy to look back and understand how the superstar triumphed that week in Delray Beach. But it was not that obvious a decade ago.
“That was amazing, amazing for sure,” said Dante Bottini, Nishikori’s coach since December 2010, who worked at the IMG Academy (where Nishikori has trained since coming to the United States at 13) starting in 2007. “Being such a young kid, I remember he wasn’t that big. He was very skinny, playing with all these big guys. That was very, very impressive. Very impressve.”
Becoming the first Japanese player since Matsuoka (1995 Beijing) to advance to a tour-level semi-final was worthy of commendation. But Nishikori faced four match points against Querrey. The magical run, it seemed, was one big shot from coming to an end.
Kei Nishikori: From ‘Project 45’ To Top 10
Somehow, Nishikori survived.
“I was the Challenger guy,” Nishikori said. “He was a much better player. I had no pressure and I was just playing with nothing to lose, so I think I was more free to play those points and maybe I had more guts to play aggressively.”
“He came out and beat James the next day. A little bit of a shock then, but now looking back, it wasn’t so much of a shock,” Querrey said. “He’s had such a great career.”
The thing is, at that point, Nishikori never believed he would beat Blake. And neither did the top seed.
“I’d seen a little bit of the match. But I knew the way I was playing, I felt like I could be overpowering. I would be able to be aggressive,” Blake said. “And also, [I thought] he might be nervous. It was his first final.”
And whether it was because of nerves or not, Nishikori still did not believe he would win while serving at 5-4, 40/0 in the third set, three championship points on his racquet. Blake was a full-fledged star. Nishikori was just a teenager, playing someone whom he had only watched on television.
“I wasn’t believing that I could win the match. I was still thinking I might lose this game, even though I had match points,” Nishikori said. “It was really tough to believe in myself, especially against James, who was almost Top 10. And I was watching him on TV at that time, so it wasn’t easy.”
A Blake forehand error sealed the up-and-comer’s victory — Nishikori was no longer ‘The Challenger Guy’.
“I played pretty well and he just beat me,” Blake said. “I remember coming back and my brother and my coach were there and my brother said, ‘That kid is going to be really, really good’.
“Normally my brother might make an excuse like, ‘Oh, you had a rough day’ or whatever. He just said, ‘That kid is going to be good. You didn’t do anything wrong today’,” Blake remembered. “I felt like that was the case and it was so surprising to have a qualifier ranked 200 and something in the world come in and just outplay me and beat me when I was near the Top 10 in the world.”
Later that year, the teenager would become the first Japanese player to reach the fourth round at the US Open since Jiro Yamagishi in 1937. By the end of 2008, Nishikori would soar to No. 63 in the world. And while injuries set him back, the right-hander would break Matsuoka’s record ATP Ranking for a Japanese player at 2011 Shanghai.
But all of that success stems from one magical week in Delray Beach, Florida. Not bad for a guy who didn’t want to be there, saying he’d “rather play a Challenger and win a couple matches”.
“I was coming from almost nothing before [Delray Beach],” Nishikori said. “That was the start of my career.”