Sports

US Open finalist Nishikori makes history

A pioneering Kei Nishikori blazed a new trail for Japanese tennis with a shock win over world No. 1 Novak Djokovic at the US Open (yesterday morning, Singapore time), becoming the first man from Asia to book a place in a Grand Slam final.

Already one of tennis' top-10 earners according to Forbes.com, the 24-year-old Japanese battler can expect to soar even higher up both the world and sponsorship rankings following a sensational march into the Flushing Meadows final that included upset wins over three higher seeds.

Nishikori, the 10th seed, will face fellow first-timer Marin Cilic, the 14th seed, in the final (tomorrow morning, Singapore time) and while the Croat looks in great form after pounding 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 in the other semi-final, there is genuine belief among the Japanese fans that their man can reach the mountain top.

"I hope it is big news in Japan," said Nishikori, after his stunning 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (7/4), 6-3 win over the top seed.

SUPPORT

"I feel the support from Japan even from the TV even though it's 4 o'clock in the morning, but I hope a lot of people watching.

"I know it is a tough time. It is the completely opposite side (of the world)."

But already, the messages were rolling in, he said. "I got like 20 message already... Very happy to make another history.

"I hope I can win and to make another history."

Djokovic, who helped put tennis on the map in his native Serbia with his seven Major wins, believes Nishikori's appearance in the final could have a similar impact in Japan.

Nearly a century ago, Japan was a respectable tennis nation, with Ichiya Kumagae appearing in the semi-final of the US Open while Jiro Satoh made the last four at Wimbledon in 1932-3 as well as semi-finals in the Australian and French Opens in the 1930s.

The decades since have been lean times for the nation, with Kimiko Date-Krumm and Ai Sugiyama waving the flag while China's Li Na put the spotlight on Asian tennis with her victory at the Australian Open.

Now Nishikori, another one who sharpened his skills at the Bollettieri academy in Florida, is charting new ground.

Certainly no one worked harder, or longer for his place in the final.

In a remarkable display of endurance, Nishikori followed up punishing five-set wins over third seed Stan Wawrinka and fifth-ranked Milos Raonic with an even more extraordinary effort, overwhelming favourite Djokovic in two hours, 52 minutes on a sweltering Arthur Ashe Stadium court.

The Japanese arrived looking fresh, despite having played the latest finishing match in history at the US Open on Tuesday in the fourth round against Raonic, when he walked off court at 2:26am local time.

Two days later Nishikori was forced to go the distance again, outlasting Wawrinka in a 4hr 15min battle.

In total, a tireless Nishikori logged 11 hr 16min of court time in his last three matches.

"I guess I love to play long matches and I hope I can recover well for the final," said Nishikori.

Nishikori, who nearly missed the US Open after struggling to recover from surgery to remove a cyst from a toe, admitted that in the past he may have struggled to get through the marathon matches he has faced in New York.

"A few years ago it would have been tough. But having the last two days off has helped as it wasn't easy playing two five-sets and four-hour matches," said Nishikori, who, like Djokovic, struggled in on-court temperatures which were closing in on 40 degrees Celsius.

He praised the impact of American coach Michael Chang, the 1989 French Open champion, who has been working in tandem with long-term handler Dante Bottini.

If form is any guide, then Nishikori should race to a win as he boasts a 5-2 record over the 25-year-old Cilic, including both meetings this year, on hard court in Brisbane and on Barcelona clay.

However, they have split their two past US Open duels, with Nishikori winning in 2010 and Cilic coming out on top two years ago.

"He's been playing really well, very aggressive, very fast tennis. I know he's been getting stronger," said Nishikori. - Wire Services

"This is definitely huge for Japan. This can definitely be a great encouragement for tennis in that country. He’s been around for the last couple of years. He’s been making a lot of success. But playing finals of a Grand Slam and now fighting for the title is definitely something different. He has gotten to another level."

- Novak Djokovic

Victory rouses Japan

Japan was in celebratory mood yesterday when the nation awoke to the news that Kei Nishikori had become the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final.

After Nishikori's historic victory over the world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the US Open semi-finals in New York in the early hours of the morning local time, public broadcaster NHK hailed it as "an unprecedented achievement for Japan".

The Nikkei Shimbun economic newspaper even updated its online homepage to carry news of the triumph.

Many bleary-eyed fanatics had to watch live Internet streams of the match, with the action available only on television via a satellite subscription network.

TV commentators screamed themselves hoarse, yelling "Nishikori through to the final!", as the 24-year-old dropped his racket after clinching match point.

In Nishikori's hometown of Matsue in rural Shimane prefecture, some 300 fans cheered on their idol while watching on a giant screen. - AFP.