Kei Nishikori feels the heat as he aims for ATP top 10 rankings

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The burden of public pressure and expectations is very evident when it comes to home players at grand slams. Andy Murray has probably seen the worst of it as he tried to end a seven-decade long wait for a British male champion at Wimbledon. At the other slams too, home favourites have more often than not succumbed to the pressure. Samantha Stosur has a dismal record in Melbourne; no French male has won at Roland Garros in 30 years; Amelie Muaresmo crumbled into a bundle of nerves every time she played in Paris; and young American Sloane Stephens is already worried of not living up to the hype during the American summer hardcourt stretch.

Away from the slams, the burden of expectation also seems to affect break-out stars from traditionally non-tennis countries, especially those from the Asian continent, which is expected to be one of the top markets for the game in the coming years (not surprising when you consider that more than a third of the world’s population lives in that region).

Japan’s Kimiko Date-Krumm quit the sport at the age of 26 because she grew tiresome of the spotlight, leaving her feeling no joy when she played the game. Date-Krumm quote “At that time, there were not so many athletes outside Japan and everybody put the pressure on to me. It was too much stress for me. I was too young. I loved tennis and I only wanted to play tennis and it was difficult to control myself and to understand everything.” It took her 12 years away from the game and a lot of pushing by her husband before she attempted an unlikely comeback at the age of 38 which is still going strong.

Indian Sania Mirza also received a lot of negative backlash as she ascended up the world rankings; everything from the clothes she wore to the accent she spoke in to the endorsements she did was up for criticism.  And ever since she became the first Asian woman to win a grand slam singles title, China’s Li Na has been often asked to apologise to home fans after losing in the early rounds at major tournaments.

What each of these three women had in common was the fact that they had gone further than any other player from their nation had. And while there were plenty of accolades and awards when they were on the rise, the backlash was much stronger when things did not go their way.

The latest player hoping to avoid that trap is Japan’s Kei Nishikori, the most successful Japanese male player in history. When Nishikori burst on to the scene in 2008 as an 18 year old by winning the Delray Beach Championships, he was nicknamed Project 45 (the best ranking achieved by a Japanese male player at that time was no. 46 by Shuzo Matsuoka).

Nishikori did successfully complete that project in late 2011 and everything he has since achieved has only added another record-breaking chapter in Japanese tennis history. Now, the 23 year old stands on the edge of breaking into the world’s top 10 for the first time ever.  And he sure is feeling the heat.

In a recent interview with CNN, Nishikori commented, “I try not to think too much because if I start thinking then I feel pressure myself. I think people have started thinking about me winning a grand slam or getting to the top ten but it might take some time. I sometimes feel the pressure from a lot of things — my team, my country, my fans — but you have to handle it well.”

His recent results, of late, have been indifferent (after reaching the fourth round of the French Open, he lost his first match in Halle to 29th ranked Mikhail Youzhny, in the third round at Wimbledon to 28th ranked Andreas Seppi and in the third round of this week’s Citi Open to Juan Martin del Potro) and instead of accelerating towards the top 10, it seems like he might stumble into there. At 5 ft 10 inches, Nishikori relies on exemplary footwork and a counterpunching game instead of a massive serve and big ground strokes to win matches. That also leaves him prone to more injuries.

With his current ranking at no. 11, the summer hardcourt stretch is the perfect opportunity for Nishikori to break into the top 10 before the tour moves on to Asia. If he fails to do so, the pressure on him to do so in the post-US Open Asian swing will only increase.

While Date-Krumm quit the game altogether because of the increased pressure and spotlight that came with every new ranking milestone, Nishikori may be moulded of sterner stuff. At least, that’s what he, his team and his millions of fans would be hoping.

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