His BNP Run
If you traveled to the BNP Paribas Open this year you might remember this interesting story of the 21 year-old Japanese player, Yoshihito Nishioka: After losing in the final round of Qualifying to Elias Ymer, Richard Gasquet withdrew from the Main Draw giving Nishioka the Lucky Loser spot, typically awarded to the highest ranked player from the final round of Quallies. Normal enough, but the twist was when the fate of the draw rescheduled Nishioka and Ymer for a rematch the very next day.
This time, Yoshi, as he’s often called, made the most of the opportunity and he proceeded to knock off Ymer, big-serving Ivo Karlovic, and Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych, before eventually falling to Stan Wawrinka, but not before pushing him to the brink in the 3rd set.
It’s a story illustrating the belief that Yoshihito Nishioka plays with these days, and it explains his jump from #124 at this time last year, to his current #58 ranking this week down in Miami. That’s a massive jump in one year, and along the way he’s notched some big wins over players like Berdych, Karlovic, Jack Sock and and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, but just as importantly he’s beating the players he should beat, the 50-150 guys grinding out there on tour.
Nishioka’s necessary Comparison to Nishikori
Such is the success of Kei Nishikori that no Japanese players ever exists beyond his orbit. Consider that Yoshihito Nishioka is ranked #58 in the world from a country that for decades had a standing “Project 45” approach in which they were trying to create a player that could exceed the former high of Shuzo, Matsuoka, who reached #46 in 1992. Had there been no Kei, Yoshi would be the talk of the nation, with hopes and aspirations fixed on his every shot and legions of fans supporting his quest to move into the forties and thirties. As it stands, Nishikori has raised the bar and created a new normal for Japanese success on the tennis court. It’s worth considering how Kei paved the way for Yoshi’s success, and if Yoshi would have had the belief and the support to reach #58 had Kei not battled through all the attention and pressure years ago. It’s not insignificant, and if you consider how frequently we discuss the effect Andy Murray has had in relation to the success of Daniel Evans, Kyle Edmund, and even Jo Konta, (when there was already a Henman and a Rusedski) what Kei has done in Japan is on an entirely different level. The flip side of this, of course, is that without Kei, Yoshihito Nishioka
Big Fight in a Small Package
Certainly, all Japanese players will forever bear comparisons to Nishikori, in terms of global success, and in Yoshi’s case in physicality. He stands at 5’7” and weighs in at 140, which creates a certain David vs Goliath theme when he’s knocking off big men like Karlovic and Berdych. As this video shows, his footwork is some of the best on tour.
Yoshi currently plays with Yonex, a Japanese company that works with top players from all over the world, and he wears their clothing as well, sporting many of the same bright pinks as Stan Wawrinka. This will make him easy to spot this year as he spends the majority of his time on the side courts, grinding it out until a bigger name lures him into the stadium for battle.
He’s also a Friendly Dude
Being a great player isn’t just about footwork and forehands. Players are entertainers; we pay for the show and the spectacle. It’s a tennis experience we all crave, not simply a demonstration of talent. If you want an autograph, a smile, or a photo, Yoshi is one of the friendliest guys on tour and known for giving time to fans.
Below, Yoshi poses with a fan in Melbourne, holding a framed copy of his Japan Times profile: