Warrior spirit leads Nishikori to new heights

Thu Dec 18, 2014 2:34pm EST
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By Martyn Herman

LONDON (Reuters) - There comes a moment in all great sporting careers when the puzzle fits together and for Kei Nishikori it arrived on a sweltering early September afternoon in New York.

It was there that the young kohai (Japanese for protege) humbled the master, in this case Novak Djokovic.

Nishikori beat Roger Federer in Miami and had Rafa Nadal on the ropes in Madrid early in the season, but this was against the ruthless world number one in the U.S. Open semi-final, having just played back-to-back five-setters.

Undaunted, the 24-year-old showed Djokovic scant respect, rocking the Serb with the force and relentless warrior-like spirit of his play to claim a four-set victory.

In doing so he became the first Japanese man, and the first from an Asian country, to reach a grand slam singles final.

Croat Marin Cilic cut Nishikori down to size in the final but, providing the Japanese stays clear of the injuries that haunt all top athletes, there seems little doubt he will contest more grand slam finals.

Japan has produced few male players to be taken seriously and until Nishikori, Shuzo Matsuoka had been their benchmark in the professional era, having reached 46th in the rankings.

Hence the reason a teenaged Nishikori was dubbed "Project 45" when he left the home comforts of Shimane for the endless drills and ball-chasing at Nick Bolletieri's Academy in Florida.   Continued...

Kei Nishikori of Japan reacts during his semi-final tennis match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia at the ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena in London November 15, 2014. REUTERS/Toby Melville