As a teenager, Yoshihito Nishioka used to marvel at the forehands of Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco, the muscular Spaniards who rip the ball like few others. Like many who came before him, he dreamed of one day striking fear into opponents with a combination of vicious spin and brute force.
But bearing a frame that upon maturity today is just 170cm and 64 kg, the laws of physics had other ideas, as did Nick Bollettieri. Instead of looking to Spain for inspiration, Nishioka should look half a world away to Chile, the legendary coach advised.
“Mr. Nick told me: ‘You’re not very tall and you’re not very strong, so you need to use your speed and technique and learn to play like a small player,'” Nishioka says. “He said I should base my game on Marcelo Rios, who was the same height, same build and a lefty like me.”
So Nishioka did what any industrious Millennial would do. “I started watching his matches on YouTube and I learned a lot about how to [construct] points. Coming to the net, hitting drop shots; he can do whatever he wants. After I started watching Rios, I wanted to play like him.
“There are many good small players today like Kei [Nishikori], Goffin, di Minaur, Schwartzman who can compete with the bigger, stronger players. We don’t have their power and we can’t serve 20 aces a match. So we have to use our speed and technique, fight and be mentally tough, and also figure out where the weakness is in our opponents.”
Ahead of his return to home soil next week for the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships in Tokyo, Nishioka had moved to within two places of his career-high ATP Ranking after a determined recovery from serious injury.
Just four days after reaching his best ranking of No. 58 in March 2017, ‘Yoshi’ tore his left ACL during a second-round match against Jack Sock at the Miami Open. He underwent surgery in April and missed the remainder of the year.
His long road back included 11 ATP Challenger Tour appearances in 2018 but, more significantly, his first ATP Tour title one year ago in Shenzhen, when he came through qualifying to take the title. The run included three-set wins over his idol Verdasco in the semis and Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert in the final.
“That is a big memory for me and at the time I couldn’t believe I won the tournament because I played the qualifying and I hadn’t made any deep runs at ATP events that year. The comeback had been very tough, so the victory was very emotional.”
Growing up in Japan, Nishioka was one of many young players who benefitted from the generosity of former Sony Chairman Masaaki Morita, who underwrote the cost of sending players to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
“Mr. Morita wanted to support Japanese tennis juniors and at that time in Japan not many players went outside the country. But Mr. Morita thought we had to go outside. Each year he sent a junior to IMG Academy and there we were given our goal for the year, such as winning a Futures event or a big junior tournament. If I meet the goal, I get to stay for another year. If I don’t meet it, I have to go back home.”
Spending four years in Florida not only improved his tennis, it broadened his horizons and life skills.
“When I went to IMG I had zero English,” Nishioka says. “Many Japanese are shy when they cannot speak. They thought I was crazy because I wanted to speak, to have conversations with people. Even though I couldn’t speak I still wanted to try.
“I wanted to talk to players who were the same age as me at IMG, to make friends. I want to know about their culture and to tell them about Japanese culture. I also knew that English was the language of tennis, among the players and in the interview room. So I knew I had to learn it.”
Nishioka’s best results this year have come on hard courts. In January he came through qualifying to reach the Sydney quarter-finals. At Indian Wells he beat current Top 10 player Roberto Bautista Agut and Felix Auger-Aliassime before retiring with a back injury against Miomir Kecmanovic in the fourth round.
His best result of the year – a run through qualifying to the Cincinnati quarter-finals – was extra special as it included his first win over his hero Nishikori.
“I want to check the morning news tomorrow to see what they’re going to say,” Nishioka told media after the win. “Hopefully many spotlight on me. In Japanese tennis, the only famous players are Kei and Naomi [Osaka]. I want to change that. Hopefully [fans] are going to maybe watch me after the match today.”
With Nishikori unfortunately sidelined with an arm injury, Nishioka is sure to be the fan favourite next week in Tokyo.