By Pritha Sarkar
PARIS (Reuters) - After becoming the first Asian man to reach a grand slam singles final and coming agonisingly close winning the title, Kei Nishikori will achieve another milestone when he becomes the first player from the continent to compete at the ATP World Tour Finals.
While many other first-time grand slam finalists might think falling at the final hurdle at the U.S. Open was something to shout about, Nishikori is determined not to get carried away by the feat because as far as he is concerned -- there is unfinished business to complete.
As he prepares to make his debut in the season-ending spectacular featuring eight of the world's best players, the unassuming Nishikori sat down with Reuters to have a chat about how a move to the U.S. helped him to become an Asian trailblazer, about the weaknesses he is still working on with his coach Michael Chang and about the weight of expectation on his shoulders.
REUTERS: You were given the "Project 45" nickname when you were starting out in tennis with the aim of surpassing Japan's previous best men's ranking of 46. You have now become the first Asian man to qualify for the ATP World Tour Finals so how does it feel for 'Project 45' to be among the 'Elite 8' this year?
NISHIKORI: "It’s a bit different. That was one of the goals I had when I was 18 (to be ranked higher than 46th in the world). Now it’s a completely different situation.
"I tried to aim for London last year but (I had to settle with) finishing in the Top 20. It’s a great feeling. I have motivation for the good goals so it’s a great feeling."
REUTERS: You will be making your debut in the Finals, what are your expectations?
NISHIKORI: "I might get nervous first time but I’ll try to play my best tennis and try not to think too much of it being the Tour Finals.
"It’s a great achievement to play in the Finals for the first time. Last year I started thinking about playing there, so it will be really great.
"Beating Novak (Djokovic) in the U.S. Open semi-finals was a great experience and gave me a lot of confidence. So for sure I know I have chance to beat the top players if I can play good, I have some chance to win some matches."
REUTERS: After the year you’ve had, what do you feel about the ‘Project 45’ nickname?
NISHIKORI: "Having that as my first goal (of reaching 45 in the rankings) was great for my career. It’s not easy to aim for Top 10 when you are 18 (years old), so it was a great goal for me. It took some time to get there, but I’m very proud that I’m now one of the best players in Japan."
REUTERS: One of the best? Think the rankings say you are the best.
NISHIKORI: (smiles shyly)
REUTERS: You came agonisingly close to becoming the first Asian man to win a singles grand slam title. How do you feel about that now?
NISHIKORI: "I was really disappointed I couldn’t play good tennis in the final because I was playing really well for two weeks and then in the last match I couldn’t. But I needed a little more experience as I got a little bit tight in the final.
"Marin (Cilic) played really great tennis so I couldn’t really do much. But after that I won two tournaments in Asia. The next goal is to win a grand slam but I know it’s not easy to go even to the semis or final, so it may take some time but hopefully I can reach a grand slam final again."
REUTERS: What more do you have to do to climb that final hurdle?
NISHIKORI: "I need a little bit more of everything. I need a little bit more experience, you have to be ready mentally to play seven best-of-five-set matches, that’s not easy. My body has to be a little more stronger to try and play couple of five sets in two weeks."
REUTERS: Why do you think Asia still does not have a men’s singles grand slam champion?
NISHIKORI: "It’s a good question. I don’t know too (smiling). I really don’t know. I know there are lot of talented players in the juniors but when they get older.... I don’t know.
"For me it was great that I (moved to) live in the States, and I got a lot of good practice and travelling wise it was a lot easier than staying in Asia."
REUTERS: Do you think you can end Asia’s wait next year?
NISHIKORI: "I won’t say next year but hopefully I can make a grand slam final again in next couple of years and win it."
REUTERS: How do you make sure your slender build does not hold you back against the big six feet (1.83 metres) plus rivals?
NISHIKORI: "It’s not easy to play the big guys, especially since I’m one of the smallest guys on tour. But you see David (Ferrer) has been in the top five ...
"But I have advantage of good footwork. I have something that they don’t have. That’s the fun things for the tennis. I am improving a lot of my weaknesses. Sometimes I feel it’s not easy but I always try to enjoy (the battle) and try to find a way what I have to do.
"I am faster than other players and I can get to a lot of balls. They have big serves, much power, they can finish points with one or two shots. For me it’s not like that but I still enjoy matching up to them."
REUTERS: Now that Li Na has retired, you are the torch bearer of Asian tennis. Do you see that as a positive or would you have preferred not to have that added pressure on your shoulders?
NISHIKORI: "I’m okay. It was very sad to see her retire because what she’s done was amazing for Asian tennis.
"Also for me, I got a lot of confidence from seeing her play great tennis and winning grand slams. Hopefully I will be in her position soon. Hopefully there will be more Asian players coming up and I can give them confidence as well."
FEEL LIKE I'M FAMOUS
REUTERS: How has your life changed since the U.S. Open?
NISHIKORI: "A lot of people in Japan now recognise me, even in the U.S. some people recognise me -- I never had that before. It’s a great feeling. Feel like I’m famous!
"It’s not like I want to be famous but it’s a great motivation for me. If you have good attention, you feel more excited. When I go back to Japan, it’s not easy as it not as relaxing (as before) but I try to enjoy the moment."
REUTERS: Can you walk down the street in Japan without being stopped or recognised?
NISHIKORI: "Not really, ha ha ha -- after the U.S. Open it’s difficult. But I always try to enjoy it (the attention). I live in the U.S., so I know it’s not always so I try to enjoy it when I’m in Japan."
REUTERS: When Roger Federer asked to hit with you at Wimbledon in 2007, what did you think at the time? Did you pick up any tips?
NISHIKORI: "When I was young he was my idol so it was an exciting moment. He’s the best player in tennis history so I was very excited and very nervous. The excitement was amazing."
REUTERS: You were born six months after your coach Michael Chang won the French Open in 1989. Have you ever seen a recording of it and what did you think?
NISHIKORI: "I saw Michael’s win on video. It’s incredible that he won a grand slam at 17. Now it’s almost impossible to win a grand slam when you are young. It’s amazing. We play kind of similar tennis so there is a lot to learn from him."
REUTERS: What more can Michael do to improve you as a player?
NISHIKORI: "We are spending more time on the court together and mentally he’s giving me a lot of good tips, changing some techniques. (As a result of his coaching) I am trying to be more aggressive than before and come in a little bit more."
REUTERS: You were tagged ‘Project 45’ -- once you’ve finished with your career, what tag do you think will be given to the next Japanese prodigy?
NISHIKORI: "For sure my best ranking, I want them to pass me for sure... but I know the tennis tour is very tough. Top 10 should be one of the first goals for every player."
REUTERS: Maybe 'Project 1'?
NISHIKORI: "Ha ha ha, I hope so. I want them to beat my best ranking for sure."
REUTERS: Apart from playing in the Tour Finals, is there anything else you want to do while you are in London?
NISHIKORI: "London, uhm...shopping? Ha ha ha, is that a good answer? I love shopping. I like shopping for clothes but I think I have to stay focused."
(Editing by Toby Davis)