Rohit at the Australian Open: Nishikori's image bolsters his yen for perfection

Kei Nishikori, signing autographs at the Australian Open, is a national hero in Japan where his fans include older women who like his open, honest image.
Kei Nishikori, signing autographs at the Australian Open, is a national hero in Japan where his fans include older women who like his open, honest image.PHOTO: EPA

A journalist in Melbourne knows a Japanese interpreter from a Japanese TV station who puts me in touch with a Japanese writer, who is far too polite to flinch from my query. Akatsuki Uchida, who is freelancing here for Smash magazine, knows what I am going to ask because so many here are asking it.

Same question. Every day.

"Who really is Kei?"

We're asking because this player with the surname Nishikori and the reputation dangerous, who plays if he's reciting a dialogue from Remember The Titans - "mobile, agile, hostile" - is captivating Asia and beyond. He lost in the quarter-finals here but on a weekly basis he is Asia's industrious representative in a continent's chase for male tennis relevance.

We want to know because this stuffed-toy cuddling man of 25, who endorses racquets, shoes, watches, credit cards, noodles, clothes, airlines and TV stations, has roughly 35 writers and photographers trailing him at this Open.

We're fascinated because "first Asian male" prefaces almost every mention of this oiled athlete. First Asian male to be ranked No. 5. First Asian male to reach a Grand Slam final at the US Open last year. As a fan told the Japan Times last year: "I couldn't believe (it)... it was like a dream."

We're charmed because in a neat coincidence his tutor is a friendly face, an Asian-American who found glory and is trying to lead a Japanese to it. Or as Michael Chang, a devout Christian, might call it, this is divine intervention.

But mostly we're intrigued because since the first Grand Slam event in 1877, roughly the same time the first railway line was laid between Tokyo and Yokohama, no Asian male has won a major title.

And Nishikori is getting close. There's no guarantee in a heart-breaking, body-damaging sport that it will happen, but as Tony Roche, coach once to Ivan Lendl and Roger Federer, told The Sunday Times: "He can win one in the next few years."

Only because he has come a long way in a few years.

In the mid-1980s, the tiny daughter of a Yugoslav cartoonist travelled to America to fine-tune her tennis. Her name was Monica Seles, she won nine Grand Slam titles, and more than strokes were learnt on those shores, as a voyaging young Japanese would himself discover.

In a story widely told, most recently in Time magazine, Nishikori, the son of two recreational tennis players, was sent to the IMG Academy in Florida at 13. It was done at the behest of Masaaki Morita, a businessman who, wrote the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, used to carry his racquet on his travels. Willing to fund his romance, Morita set up scholarships, driven by his visionary idea to "grow players who can win Grand Slams".

A Japanese in America was a trans-national, multi-cultural act of genius. Nishikori couldn't speak English and his racquet was learning to talk, but soon he was adept at both languages. English, as Uchida notes, "is the language of tennis" - almost no one uses a translator in the press room - and it is how Nishikori talks to umpires and debates with Chang.

America has been kind to Nishikori. Firstly, it is perfectly placed geographically and with Europe is the players' chosen base. Secondly, this nation of sporting exuberance, where expressing passion seems part of their Declaration of Independence, may have culturally infected him.

Nations need scouts, continents require path-breakers. Athletes to explore new territory and convey the idea that conquest is possible. Asia is more enamoured of academics than adventure, yet in the past 20 years it has advertised its athletic intentions.

China topped an Olympic medal table and Li Na dazzled a female tennis planet. An Olympic track gold was won and a women's World Cup football grabbed. Women took home 21 golf Majors in the last decade and a man, Yang Yong-eun, grabbed one from Tiger Woods.

Only men's football, F1 and men's tennis remain elusive. To be the first is daunting and while Asian men have been to Grand Slam semi-finals 12 times, none has held a trophy. In effect, we are asking Nishikori to walk on a tennis moon.

To achieve this he has to rally against stereotypes and sprint past convention. Power in tennis arrives from long levers and since 2005 no man under six feet (182cm) has won a major title. Nishikori is only 178cm. Such are the fine margins that test greatness.

His coach, Chang, shorter still, was a brilliant aberration in winning the French Open in 1989, but Chang was a counter-puncher and will know his pupil has to impose himself. Till Nishikori wins a slam, size will remain tennis' reality, not just a myth.

Nishikori must also walk a cultural tightrope, to be his Japanese self and yet more than it. Tennis has no body contact yet it is intrinsically confrontational. It uniquely disallows mid-match coaching and thus hand-holding and is far removed from the delicate art of origami. There you create, here you crush.

Uchida defines Nishikori as "very modest, very humble". But adds that while he "looks very, very Japanese, on court he can be different, almost American. He takes risks, he's confident, he's aggressive". Western observers offer a similar view. Says Todd Woodbridge, a player turned commentator: "Kei has an Asian temperament, but has the ability to produce more grunt. He's not embarrassed to be aggressive."

And so whether in his sneakers, or in a suit, Nishikori is discovering a polite yet persuasive balance. And predictably a fandom to match.

For the first time in almost 20 years, Tadahiro Yoshimatsu of the Nikkan Sports News has spent an entire, expensive month covering tennis in Australia. Yet as he shows me clippings of Nishikori on his front pages, it is clear the yen for this player is worth any cost.

Amid the din of sport, athletes can only make themselves heard with an alluring broadcast of their talents. Nishikori's arrived at the 2014 US Open when he defeated Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka and world No.1 Novak Djokovic to get to the finals. Immediately, says Uchida, he morphed "into a national hero".

Heroism is a brittle business but right now Nishikori is beloved in Japan. And as Uchida says, "not just by the usual tennis fans but also older women. He produces a good, honest image". He is impeccably behaved, easy to talk to and quickly wealthy.

Forbes magazine, which kindly calculates athletes' earnings for the entire media to then use, listed him in the Top 10 tennis earners of 2014: He's not quite Roger Federer, whose endorsement earnings were US$52 million (S$70 million), but not that far behind Murray. The Scot earned US$15 million, Nishikori US$9 million.

Beyond the billboards has begun an effect. Bjorn Borg's legacy was a series of sober Swedish offspring. Nishikori, just 25, is registering his own influence. Nobutaka Hatta, media director of the Japan Tennis Association, says that "sales of tennis goods used by Nishikori are all doing well. We have also heard that tennis schools have signed up many new students".

Matches, said Mr Hatta, "used to be broadcast only on a paid channel (WOWOW). But because of Nishikori's popularity, the NHK public network also bought broadcasting rights for the recent Australian Open."

Popularity equals personality yet also performance and Nishiori must adroitly negotiate tennis' weekly interrogations. Tactically more versatile and physically less brittle, one rumour from the locker room is that of every aspiring, young tyro he is most admired by the top.

Nadal has called him "fantastic", Federer has praised his "great technique" and Djokovic said "he has gotten to another level". But Nishikori cannot pause to soak up praise for he must get used to being somebody, being a threat and being threatened.

"I'm new to No. 5," he said. "It's been only a couple months to stay this ranking. I am just not comfortable." But he has time, for as Woodbridge says "it will take him 2-3 years to be at his best" and by then Federer may be gone and Nadal fading. It is a journey Asia will take with him - expecting of him yet already grateful for him.

Walking down a corridor at the Open one afternoon, Brad Gilbert, coach once to Andre Agassi and also Nishikori, recalled a conversation he had with the Japanese. "I told him, 'it's not your size, it's what's in your heart'." In Nishikori's perhaps lies a gracious and grand ambition.

rohitb@sph.com.sg