It’s not just Kei Nishikori that is on the fast track to success on the ATP tour, but Japanese tennis in all forms is on the rise. Specialist Talent Development Coach Jamie Parrott explored the courts of Japan to find out more.
While we scour Europe and the USA for development programs and pathways to model, a quiet revolution is under way in nearby Japan. Courts may be limited and on-court time precious, but while viewing training programs in Tokyo, Kyoto and Sapporo it became obvious that this shortage worked as an advantage. The Japanese are certainly three things: respectful, efficient and disciplined. With sometimes up to 20 players on a court and coaches pumping out single ball fed ball drills, it was obvious that respect, work ethic, concentration and focus to the task at hand were paramount. These qualities were evident at each centre I went to, and go a long way to explaining Japan’s rise in the game.
Kei Nishikori is the face of a surging Japanese interest in tennis, and with Kimiko Date-Krumm’s continued success and longevity on the WTA tour, there is no shortage of good tennis news for Japan. Nishikori is as close to a rock star as one can be playing tennis. He is feted by WowWow the Japanese television network and admired by all and sundry in his homeland. His is an incredible story – Nishikori was nicknamed “Project 45”, as the stated goal from the Japan Tennis Association was to get a player ranked inside Shuzo Matsuoka’s career high of ATP #46 in 1992. Nishikori arrived at Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy in Florida at the age of 14, he was very shy and spoke no English.
Nishikori battled with bouts of homesickness, but never lost sight of his dream. He is one of the most athletic and tenacious players on the tour today, with a huge forehand and electrifying footwork. Kei Nishikori is the real deal – and his play is just the type to inspire a nation. The fact that last October he became the first Japanese player to win the Japan Open in the event’s 41 year history certainly added fuel to the fire. Kei is BIG in Japan.
While Nishikori may be the flag bearer on the men’s tour, the Japanese can also look to the women. Kimiko Date-Krumm (WTA# 25) at the ripe old age of 43 is inspiration personified and is a “story” every time she plays. Girls can also be inspired by the 31st ranked Ayumi Morita who is in career best form. Both players are sponsored by Yonex, and the Japanese racket manufacturer is in a strong growth position with Yonex endorsed by marketable players from Ana Ivanovic, Caroline Wozniacki and China’s Zheng Jie to Stan Wawrinka, and our own Lleyton Hewitt and Bernard Tomic, among many others.
Whilst baseball and football (soccer) are the national pastimes, notable parts of corporate Japan are aware of the push toward tennis. UNIQLO, the Japanese “‘life wear” manufacturer struck gold when they signed world number one, Novak Djokovic as a “global ambassador” – they did pretty well with their other global ambassador signing too – Aussie golfer and US Masters winner, Adam Scott.
Japan’s tennis structure is very similar to Australia’s. The governing body for all tennis in Japan is the Japan Tennis Association. The JTA has a strong community tennis network, and whilst courts are relatively scarce in comparison with Australia, Japan, like Australia, has a network of club, adult and school leagues. Regional associations serve the broader tennis community. National teams and squads are fully supported and travel extensively to internal and external competitions. Competition for places in the national academy and teams is fierce and the hard work is paying off at all levels for Japanese tennis.
On the men’s tour Japan currently boasts 3 players inside the top 100, Kei Nishikori (#15), Go Soeda (career high #47) and Tatsuma Ito (career high#60) with many others such as Yuichi Sugita and Hiroki Moriya knocking on the door. Nishikori’s success as a ¼ finalist at the 2012 Australian Open and as a 3 time ATP tour singles winner has given the motivation and belief to all Japanese players that they too can do it. Go Soeda’s coach, Italian Davide Sanguinetti speaks of the self-belief factor in a recent interview. “Now, they do believe in themselves, especially at hard-court events where they have more experience.” Soeda himself is aware of the Nishikori factor, and sees this as a good case of “anything you can do, so can we.” Soeda embraces the fact there are now many Japanese players pushing each other up the rankings, and says “It also helps when we travel, we can practise together, go eat, hang out and relax together. We need that on the tour.”
As with most growing tennis programs, if you scratch the surface there will be an Australian coaching connection somewhere along the way. In Japan’s case it is the evergreen Bob Brett, who has spent many years working in Japan, firstly with Mr #46 himself, Shuzo Matsuoka, and then through a talent development program that Matsuoka and Brett devised – the Shuzo Challenge. In many ways the Shuzo Challenge has been the catalyst for change and development of Japan’s male tennis brigade. It has brought all the current crop of players together and has the understated Bob Brett footprint of strong technical fundamentals and a consistently tough environment.
While Brett and Matsuoka maintain strict discipline, which ideally suits the Japanese temperament, I left Japan wondering if Australia too can instil programs that embrace hard work, discipline and respect, and would we be able to adopt and adapt. There is no easy way out, tennis success today is earned, and just like Kei Nishikori – work hard and work smart and do your best every day.