MATSUE, Japan (AP) — While Japanese fans were understandably disappointed after Kei Nishikori missed out on a U.S. Open title, his unprecedented run to the final will do much to boost his career and the sport's popularity in a country where baseball and soccer dominate headlines.
In Nishikori's home town of Matsue, over 800 fans packed into a convention hall to cheer on their hero at a standing-room only public viewing event. So many showed up that organizers had to turn people away once the match started at 6:10 a.m. Tuesday morning local time.
Giant banners emblazoned with messages of encouragement from fans hung on the walls of the conventional hall. "Good Luck Kei Nishikori, the Star of Matsue," read one message.
The anticipation of seeing the first Japanese win a Grand Slam quickly dissipated, though, when Nishikori got off to a slow start before eventually falling 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 to Croatia's Marin Cilic.
"He gave it his best shot, but the opponent's serve was just too strong," said university student Nozomi Maruyama. "But Nishikori really impressed us with his determination and I think this will make a lasting impression and make tennis more popular in Japan. He's only 24 so he has a bright future ahead of him."
As with the rest of Japan, Matsue — a quiet city of just over 200,000 — was captivated by Nishikori's success. The crowds for the public viewing events grew in size with each win.
But the convention hall fell silent when Nishikori lost the final game of the second set to give Cilic a 6-3, 6-3 lead. With Nishikori trailing 6-3, 6-3, 3-1, the crowd started to thin as people headed for the exits with plenty of time to be at their desks for the start of the work day.
Still, residents said the buzz created by Nishikori's run was good for local business.
"I hope it has brought some attention to the region," said office worker Haruyuki Okada. "We are a long way from Tokyo so people tend to forget us here."
Despite the one-sided loss, many admired Nishikori's fighting spirit.
"As a Japanese, he is smaller than many other western rivals and that alone is a major obstacle," said 67-year-old business consultant Masatoshi Hinoshita, who watched at a Tokyo bar. "And yet, Nishikori went overseas alone to compete against those big guys. His challenge simply makes us want to be his cheerleaders."
Nishikori's first coach, Masaki Kashiwai, watched along with the other locals at the Matsue convention hall.
"Celic rode the momentum of beating (Roger) Federer and was unstoppable," Kashiwai said. "I thought there for a second in the third set Kei had a comeback in him, but it wasn't to be. Still, he did a great job to reach the final and this is just the beginning for him."
AP Writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.