By Steve Gorten
KEY BISCAYNE – Seven years ago, before he became an Asian sensation and Japan’s most successful Men’s tennis player ever, Kei Nishikori was just the youngest player in the year-end Top 100 ATP rankings.
He moved up more than 200 spots in 2008, winning his first ATP title and becoming the first Japanese player to finish in the Top 100 since Shuzuo Matsuoka in 1995.
Nishikori has steadily climbed in the rankings since then, and enters the 2015 Miami Open as the world’s fifth ranked player – the highest ranked Asian in ATP history.
On Wednesday, speaking to a media contingent that included seven reporters from Japan, Nishikori was asked whether he can ultimately reach No. 1.
“It’s going to take some time to get there,” he said. “Novak right now is the top player. It’s not easy to beat him or [Rafael Nadal] or [Roger Federer]. But slowly, I think I’m coming. I’m playing good tennis and feeling much stronger mentally and physically. It might take some time, but hopefully I can get there.”
Meanwhile, Nishikori’s countryman and training partner, Yoshihito Nishioka, is one of nine teenagers ranked in the top 200 – most in the men’s tour since 2007.
Nishioka, ranked No. 150, isn’t in the main draw of this year’s Miami Open, but four others – Croatia’s Borna Coric (No. 59), Australia’s Thanasi Kokkinakis, Korea’s Hyeon Chung (No. 121) and Germany’s Alexander Zverev (No. 129) – are. Zverev earned a spot by winning qualifying matches on Monday and Tuesday.
Chung advanced to the second round, where he’ll face No. 8 seed Tomas Berdych, after beating Spain’s Marcel Granollers 6-0, 4-6, 6-4 in a match that lasted two hours and 13 minutes during Wednesdays day matches. This was his first tour-level win in his very young career.
Fellow 18-year-old Kokkinakis fell to Argentina’s Carlos Berlocq 6-4, 3-6, 2-6 in a match that went nine minutes longer than Chung’s.
Afterward, Berlocq praised Kokkinakis.
“I believe he’s a great player. He has a big future,” Berlocq said via an interpreter. “He still needs to improve parts of his game, but he’s going on the right path. He’s already beaten very good players at a young age, and that’s very good to go up in the rankings quickly.”
Berlocq said Kokkinakis might have the talent to become one of the world’s top 10 players while declaring that another up-and-coming Australian, 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios (No. 37) definitely will be.
Stan Wawrinka, the world’s No. 8 player who would have been Kokkinakis’ opponent in the second round, named the two Australians, along with 23-year-old Serbian Filip Krajinovic (No. 96), as rising players often talked about amongst players on the tour.
Krajinovic, who won his match against countryman Dusan Lajovic, will next face a stern test from world No. 19 Gael Monfils.
“Those are the three main guys that are already winning against good guys on the tour,” Wawrinka said Tuesday. “It’s always nice when you have new guys coming on the tour.”