WASHINGTON (AFP) - Japan's fifth-ranked Kei Nishikori made history by reaching last year's US Open final and he feels stronger, smarter and more confident as he begins the quest to repeat the feat.
Nishikori opens his hardcourt run to this year's Flushing Meadows fortnight with a first-round match Tuesday against 95th-ranked Australian James Duckworth at the ATP Washington Open.
"My tennis is going a good way. I'm feeling stronger and more confident," Nishikori said. "Looking forward to playing this week."
Nishikori beat top-six rivals Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka in five sets and then ousted top-ranked Novak Djokovic to reach last year's US Open final, becoming the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final.
Croatia's Marin Cilic beat Nishikori in the championship match, but the 25-year-old has renewed confidence that he has what it takes to return to a Grand Slam final and perhaps make more history by winning it.
"The biggest thing was experience - first time in a Grand Slam final, I played five sets twice - I learned a lot of things," Nishikori said. "This year is different. Mentally I got a little stronger. Beating Novak, Stan, top 10 guys, I could believe in myself a little bit more. I was staying tough. I hope I can play good tennis these next few weeks."
Even though Rafael Nadal's ranking has slid due to injury, Nishikori sees the top four of Djokovic, Nadal, Roger Federer and Washington top seed Andy Murray as the top of the tennis world for the moment, even though Wawrinka has two Grand Slam titles and he is knocking on the door.
"I hope I can be the next one," Nishikori said. "New players are coming to the top 10 but the top four is still there. Little by little we're coming through. It's good for tennis."
Nishikori, a quarter-finalist at the French and Australian Opens, withdrew from Wimbledon after the second round with a calf injury, but says he is at full strength now.
"I'm feeling pretty well, had a good preparation before coming here, about three weeks," Nishikori said. "I took one week after after Wimbledon. My leg was fine after that."
Nishikori was pleased to see Japanese teen Yoshi Nishioka qualify for Washington and says he sees part of his role as Asian number one as inspiring new generations.
"I hope more Asian players are coming up and I hope I can keep the momentum going," Nishikori said. "I hope I can inspire new dreams the more kids see me."