In his adopted hometown, Kei Nishikori can casually walk down the streets of Bradenton and rarely draw a second glance.
Though he is ranked No. 18 in the world in men's professional tennis, Nishikori can just as easily duck unnoticed into the many restaurants he frequents in nearby Sarasota.
"They have some good food in Sarasota," says Nishikori, his eyes literally lighting up at the thought of some fine cuisine.
And if it is a little of the Japanese food he craves, Nishikori visits Utamaro Sushi Bar on Main Street in Sarasota without causing much of a stir.
"Nobody," Nishikori answers when asked who recognizes him away from the tennis courts at Bradenton's IMG Academy, where he spends the majority of his days.
And that is just fine for the unassuming 22-year old tennis player who arrived in Bradenton as a painfully shy 14-year old and who could only find his comfort zone on the tennis court.
"It is so much easier for me to live here. Everyone is so relaxed," Nishikori says. "In Japan, I feel more tension. It is hard to walk around the city."
It is far far different in the Far East, where Nishikori's moderate success on the tennis court has vaulted him to rock-star status. In a country that takes its sports heroes seriously, Nishikori is Roger Federer, Raffa Nadal and Novak Djokovic rolled into one.
Arrival times of airplane trips into Japan are closely guarded secrets. Assumed names are used at hotels, according to Olivier van Lindonk, his IMG agent.
Japanese media follow Nishikori around from tournament to tournament, similar to the way they pursue baseball players Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ichiro Suzuki. When the U.S. Open begins this week, the eyes of a nation will look toward New York and the thin, unpretentious, 22-year old who can create spectacular shots on the tennis court.
"He is like Michael Jackson over there," van Lindonk says of Nishikori, who is seeded No. 17 at the year's final Grand Slam event.
Imagine if he makes a deep run at the U.S. Open.
Though he has already won nearly $2 million in prize money, it is the potential of his popularity in Japans that makes Nishikori a tennis goldmine.
Nishikori's likeness is plastered on a seafood noodles cup in the land of nearly 130 million people. He is on the cover of the EA Sports Grand Slam tennis game in Japan, with Nadal and John McEnroe relegated to the background. He inspired UniQlo, one of Japan's major clothing firms to branch out into tennis apparel. He joins Maria Sharapova and Leonard DiCaprio as ambassadors with Swiss watch maker TAG Heuer.
Known as Air Kei for the signature forehand he hits while jumping off the court, Nishikori he has become the face of tennis in the country of his birth, inspiring a new generation of young players to take up the game.
"I am very proud to represent Japan, Nishikori says.
There is little doubt he represents his country well on and off the court.
"He epitomizes modern day tennis with his talent and the way he plays but he is also a bit of a throwback in the sense he has so much respect for the game," says Jose Lambert, who worked with the young player when Nishikori arrived at the IMG Academy Bollettieri tennis program in 2004. "He has grown to be a great example for boys and girls who come through here. I don't know anyone who doesn't look up to him as someone they aspire to be like."
In the days following a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in the spring of 2011, Nishikori partnered with the American Red Cross and others to facilitate donations on his Facebook page. He joined fellow tennis players to in other fundraising ventures in the face of the disaster.
On the court, Nishikori keeps making history for Japan. He is the second youngest player ranked in the top 20 in men's professional tennis. He combines speed and creativity on the court that translates into a fun game to watch.
"His movement and what he is able to do with his hands are truly unbelievable," said tennis coaching legend Nick Bollettieri about. Bollettieri has perspective, having coached 10 players who reached No. 1, including Andre Agassi, who was also known for his movement and creativity.
"I worked with (Nishikori) last week. He lacked a little confidence on his forerhand but we got that fixed up," said Bollettieri, who also gives Dante Bottini, Nishikori's traveling coach, credit for success of the young rising star. "If he stays injury free, he can beat almost anybody."
Despite surgery on his right elbow, which kept Nishikori off the court for more than a year in, that signature forehand has helped him post some signature wins, including beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to reach the quarterfinals of this year's Australian Open. In the process, he became the first Japanese player in 80 years to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals.
Nishikori first captured the attention of Japanese fans in 2008 by beating James Blake in the final at Delray Beach to become the first player from his country since 1992 to win an ATP title. With the win he became the youngest to win a title on the ATP Tour since Lleyton Hewitt won a tournament in Adelaide in 1998.
Later in 2008, Nishikori beat No. 4-ranked David Ferrer on his way to the fourth-round at the U.S. Open to become the youngest player to beat a top four seed in the tournament since 1973, when 17-year old Bjorn Borg beat third-seeded Arthur Ashe. By the end of the year, he was named the ATP top newcomer of the year and seemed to be on his way to realizing his potential.
That early success was tempered by an aching elbow that required surgery in 2009. Dropping to the 300s in ranking, Nishikori chose to take the long road back by playing in small challenger events, including the 2010 Sarasota Open, which he won.
His breakout year came in 2011, when he became the highest ranked Japanese player in the Open era. Along the way, he beat Tsonga and Alexandr Dolgopolov to reach a Tour Masters event in Shanghai to surpass Shuzuo Matsuoka as the highest ranked Japanese player in the history of professional tennis.
He followed that by getting to the finals at a tournament in Switzerland before losing to Federer. Earlier in the tournament, Nishikori shocked Djokovic to hand the top-ranked player just his fourth loss of the year and become the first Japanese player in tennis to record a win over a No. 1-ranked player.
The run at the Australian Open and three wins in at the 2012 Olympics has been the highlight of this year for a player many predict will climb to the height of his potential when he reaches his mid-20s.
It was a long road for the player who arrived in Bradenton as a shy teen and was nicknamed Project 45 for his pursuit of passing Matsuoka's ranking of 46 as Japan's all-time top player.
"When I turned pro, it was one of my goals to get ranked in the top 50," Nishikori said. "I didn't really feel the pressure. I had some fear but at the same time I was happy to play tennis and playing stronger players. I couldn't do that in Japan."
Nishikori loves his homeland but the 22-year old tennis player is committed to his profession and it is here, a place he moved eight years ago to train at the IMG Academy, where he feels most comfortable.
Distanced from his parents and sister, and arriving in Bradenton with no knowledge of the English language, Nishikori overcame those obstacles by playing the game that captured his imagination at the age of five.
"I had to come here to get better," said Nishikori, who grew up in Shimane, a mountainous prefecture situated on the Sea of Japan side of the Chugoku region. "I really wasn't homesick the first couple years. Everyone was surprised, especially my family. They were almost sad.
"I was shy but Americans were friendly and they would come up to talk to me."
And it is in Bradenton where Nishikori has grown into a player who knows the hard work it takes to build a tennis career.
"Here I can play tennis all day. That is what I love to do," said a sweating Nishikori after completing a grueling practice match on Wednesday with tour pro Radek Stepanek in preparation for this week's U.S. Open.
Living in a small condominium barely five minutes from the IMG facility, Nishikori comes and goes as he pleases. No demands, no drama.
His parents, Kiyoshi and Eri, stay with him in the condo the three or four times a year that they visit. Not only does Nishikori get to spend time with his family, but the condo gets a throrough cleaning, courtesy of his mother.
"It gets messy. It is tough to live by myself," he says.
Thursday the family left Bradenton for New York, where they hope to stay for two weeks. Nishikori drew a qualifier for a first-round match and has aspirations for a nice run at the Open.
"I would like to do better than I did in 2008," he says. "You just play one match at a time but I have to go farther than the round of 16 for sure."
With a little luck, and a deep run in a Grand Slam tournament or two, he could even find it difficult to walk unrecognized around his adopted home town.