NEW YORK (AFP) - Kei Nishikori and Naomi Osaka carved out a little bit of history at the US Open on Monday (Sept 3) when they became the first Japanese players in 23 years to reach the quarter-finals of the same Grand Slam.
Nishikori, the 2014 runner-up, downed German veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 while Osaka reached a first last-eight at a Major with a 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 victory against Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.
The last Japanese duo to make the quarters at the same Slam were Shuzo Matsuoka and Kimiko Date at Wimbledon in 1995.
"Seeing Kei do really well in Wimbledon, that really inspired me," said Osaka of her compatriot's achievement of being the first Japanese man in 23 years to get to the Wimbledon last-eight in July.
"I always thought if I can keep up with him, that would be really cool. So yeah, I'm glad I was able to be a part of something like that today."
Nishikori has been a long-time - if lonely - trailblazer for Japanese tennis.
He has made the quarter-finals at the Australian Open (2012, 2015 and 2016), Roland Garros (2015 and 2017), Wimbledon in 2018 and was a semi-finalist in New York in 2016, two years after losing the final to Marin Cilic. He faces Cilic again in the last eight at Flushing Meadows.
Nishikori couldn't bear to watch the US Open in 2017, after he missed out on the tournament through a wrist injury that eventually needed surgery.
"At that time I didn't really want to see any matches," Nishikori recalled.
It wasn't until he was further along with his rehab and hitting balls himself again that he started paying more attention to what was happening on the tour.
After a wary return early in 2018, Nishikori gradually found enough consistency and confidence to put together a quarter-final run at Wimbledon.
He's revelling in his run to the last eight in New York, freed of the expectations that followed his US Open final appearance and subsequent rise to number four in the world.
"This week it's been great," he said. "Every match I've been playing really good tennis and maybe I had more pressure a few years ago.
"I wanted to stay in the top 10 every year, and that gave me a little bit of pressure. Right now I don't have any pressure, I'm enjoying playing every match and enjoying playing tennis again a little more than before."
Nishikori has made brisk progress to the quarter-finals, dropping just one set and benefiting from Gael Monfils' injury retirement in the second round.
"That was the toughest moment in the match, serving for the match at 5-4 I had a 30-0 lead and he came back really strong," Nishikori said. "It was a hard situation but I did refocus again after the service break and really played great in the last two games."
Nishikori owns an 8-6 record over Cilic, but it was the Croatian who emerged a first-time Grand Slam winner when they met in the 2014 final.
"I was really nervous," Nishikori recalled of that match. "I wasn't nervous before the match, but as soon as I got into the court, it was different. I didn't have energy left to play five sets. I wasn't there for the match.
"Hopefully I can come back to that stage."