Kei Nishikori is one of six men’s tennis players who defeated Novak Djokovic in 2011, in a season that saw the Serb claim three Grand Slams and the world’s No. 1 ranking.
The others to beat Djokovic during his whirlwind season were his peers in the top 10–Roger Federer, Andy Murray, David Ferrer, Janko Tipsarevic–and 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro.
The 22-year-old Nishikori had a standout year, living up to his nickname, “Project 45,” which refers to his longstanding goal of beating countryman Shuzo Matsuoka’s highest rank of 46–a record for Japanese men since ATP World Tour rankings began in 1973. He is currently ranked No. 26.
Seeded 24th at the Australian Open, Uniqlo-sponsored Nishikori advanced to the third round after recovering from two sets down for only the second time in his career. He came from behind to defeat Australia’s No. 2, Matthew Ebden, (3-6, 1-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-1) in just over three hours.
Nishikori credited his ability to turn the match around to playing more aggressively in the latter sets. “I think it was a great win for me, in the third set I tried to make more balls and stay solid,” he said.
At Nick Bollettieri’s academy in Bradenton, Fla., where Nishikori trained from his early teens, he developed a reputation for punctuality and professionalism on court, traits that are still with him today.
Nishikori looked genuinely surprised when told Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis broke four rackets consecutively during his loss to Stanislas Wawrinka on Wednesday. “I try to keep calm when I am playing but some people break rackets to clear their mind, everybody’s different…I try not to break my racket,” he said with a smile.
Earlier this week, Nishikori said he didn’t feel any additional pressure as Asia’s highest-ranked male.
“[Bernard] Tomic is coming now, a lot of Asians are coming, so I’m proud that I’m one of the guys,” he said.
Teaming up with veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm for the mixed doubles in Melbourne, Nishikori is hopeful the pair can contest the same event at the London Olympics, if they qualify.
“In China, 2008, I played a horrible match…I felt a lot of pressure in the Olympics [because] it’s only once every four years. But I’m excited this year because my ranking is up now, and I’m really confident,” he said. “I don’t know if I can get the medal, but if I can do well, if I can play my best tennis, then I think I have some chance.”
For now, Nishikori is aiming to match if not better the best result at a major by a Japanese male–a quarterfinals berth.
Nishikori meets Frenchman Julien Benneteau in the third round after the latter upset countryman and twelfth seed Gilles Simon 7-5, 7-6(8), 1-6, 3-6, 6-2 in a match that lasted 4 hours and 12 minutes. Benneteau defeated Nishikori in their only meeting to date, on Washington hardcourts in 2007.
Elsewhere, French journeyman Nicolas Mahut defeated wildcard Tatsuma Ito of Japan 1-6, 7-6(6), 6-2, 6-2. This tournament was the first time since Roland Garros in 1974 that two Japanese males reached the second round of a Grand Slam.