Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

'Project 10:' Japan's rising son Nishikori feels weight of expectation

By Chris Murphy and Jessica Ellis, CNN
updated 12:51 AM EDT, Mon September 8, 2014
Nishikori's grand slam quest
Nishikori's grand slam quest
  • Kei Nishikori is the highest ranked Japanese male tennis player in the Open era
  • The 23-year-old has climbed up to now be ranked world number 11
  • He has beaten the likes of Roger Fereder and Novak Djokovic in recent seasons
  • Nishikori enjoys almost rock star-like fame back in his home country

Editor's note: This story was originally published in July 2013 when Kei Nishikori was aiming for a top 10 world ranking. He is now ranked 8 and about to contest the final of the U.S. Open after defeating world No.1 Novak Djokovic in the semis.

(CNN) -- For Kei Nishikori, "Project 45" has transformed into "Project 10."

The former was the 23-year-old's mission to topple the highest tennis ranking ever held by a Japanese male, Shuzo Matsuoka, who hit world No. 46 back in July 1992.

Nishikori smashed through that particular barrier towards the end of 2011 and has enjoyed a formidable few years on Tour, beating the likes of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Japan's rising son now sits in the lofty position of world No. 11 -- his highest ever ranking -- and is tantalizingly poised to gatecrash the top 10.

But with success comes expectation.

This surge towards the game's pinnacle has elevated Nishikori to rock star-like status in his home country, its population clamoring for their first ever grand slam champion.

"I try not to think too much because if I start thinking then I feel pressure myself," Nishikori told CNN's Human to Hero series.

"I think people have started thinking about me winning a grand slam or getting to the top ten but it might take some time.

The perfect beach volleyball marriage
'Unbeatable' sprinter: How I stay on top
Female squash player fights for freedom

"I sometimes feel the pressure from a lot of things -- my team, my country, my fans -- but you have to handle it well.

Read: Courting the perfect beach partner

"My next goal is to win a grand slam. Hopefully I can do it someday."

Shot maker

A first major could be around the corner if famed tennis coach Nick Bollettieri is to be believed.

Nishikori left Japan for Bollettieri's Florida academy aged just 13 without a grasp of English, but the intensive work on his game bore fruit within five years as he lifted his first ATP Tour title in Delray Beach.

According to the man who has coached a phalanx of the game's greats like Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Boris Becker and the Williams sisters, Nishikori is "a shot maker."

Bollettieri told CNN. "When he's on, he can beat anybody in the world."

Djokovic and Federer can testify to that.

Both victories served as proof Nishikori has what it takes to prosper at the game's top table.

Career landmarks

In 2012 he became the first Japanese player to reach the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in 80 years and then went on to win the Japan Open -- the first home-grown talent to do so in the tournament's 41-year history.

He may have lost to eventual champion Rafael Nadal in the fourth round at this year's French Open, but he was the first Japanese player to get to that stage since 1938.

I sometimes feel the pressure from a lot of things -- my team, my country, my fans -- but you have to handle it well
Kei Nishikori

Nishikori clearly relishes testing himself against the best players of what is widely regarded as a golden generation.

"I love to play against the top ten guys," he said. "Beating Roger this year and beating Djokovic two years ago -- that is why I am playing tennis, to play those top 10 guys and to beat them.

"I still haven't beat Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray, there are more challenges to come to play those guys."

At world No. 11 he is the highest ranked Asian male player by a distance -- the next in line is Yen-Hsun Lu from Chinese Tapei in 60th -- and Nishikori wants to blaze a trail like Li Na who won China's first ever grand slam at the women's French Open in 2011.

"I am trying to get to be the most successful player in Asia," Nishikori added. "In tennis not many players get to the top 10 -- I think only a few in the past.

"It's still weird for me to think I'm the number one player in Asia, because when I was young I couldn't think I'd be the number one player in Japan or even Asia.

"But now I am and I have to receive it in my mind, my dream is coming and hopefully I can go further. I think Li Na did a great job. Hopefully I can be the first one to lead the young guys."

Kitesurfer overcomes near-death moments
Female discus thrower defies stereotypes
How water 'energizes' historic surfer

Fed hero

Nishikori still refers to Federer, whose elegance while accumulating his 17 major titles has seen him described as the greatest the game has ever seen, as his idol.

No wonder then that Nishikori joked he'd need a couple of days to celebrate after achieving one of his career goals by beating the Swiss at the Madrid Masters in May.

Federer's dominance of men's tennis was ingrained by the time Nishikori turned professional, but prior to that it was Matsuoka he was desperate to emulate.

"I have two heroes," he explained. "The first one is Shuzo Matsuoka, he was the first (successful Japanese player) -- he was the best tennis player in Japan.

Human to Hero: Haile Gebrselassie
Gilmore: Surfing can be feminine
Teen swimming sensation: I hate losing

"And Roger Federer. Still now, even though I love to see him play I think he is really the champion of tennis history."

'Project 45'

Nishikori's rise saw a swell of optimism that he could be a pioneer for tennis, hence the 'Project 45' hype as he edged towards usurping Matsuoka's ranking.

"Project 45 was no pressure for me -- I was just playing tennis for my hobby," he said.

"My first goal after turning pro was to get into the top 100 and after to be 45. It was one of my goals to be number one tennis player in Japan, and now I am ranked No. 11 in the world.

"To get to the top 10 is my next goal. It's not going to be easy to get there -- hopefully this year -- but I am getting close."

Rock star status

Like Matsuoka, Nishikori has come to understand what being Japan's sole representative inside the top 120 means -- fame and adoration.

Much like Andy Murray who has had to carry the hopes of the United Kingdom on his shoulders, Nishikori has the same weight of responsibility, but answers to double the amount of people.

"I go back to Japan about three or four times a year," he explained. "I get to go back to my home town and, yes, people do recognize me on the streets.

"It's not easy sometimes; you don't get to relax but at the same time I still try to enjoy the moment. Not many people can feel that way -- I love to stay in Japan, I really enjoy it when I go back."

Not for a second does he begrudge the accoutrements that his success in the game has delivered. He's just a boy made good from Shimane acting out his hobby on the global stage.

"For me, playing tennis was always my hobby, I am a lucky guy," he said.

"It was something I loved. It is something that can make you mad or crazy sometimes but it is something you love and not many guys can do your job.

"I try to enjoy this moment and this life -- it is not going to be a long time, 10 to 20 years, so I'm going to work hard."

Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:40 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
The martial art of Wushu combines speed, grace and skill and Vietnamese Duong Thuy Vi is one of the world's best.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Duong Thuy Vi is a rising star in Wushu -- a martial art that requires grace, strength and incredible flexibility.
updated 5:09 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Seema Tomar has stared down the barrel of poverty and prejudice to become one of the world's leading trap shooters.
updated 9:45 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Hurtling down a mountain side at 50 mph on a bike isn't everyone's cup of tea. But for Rachel Atherton it's a zen-like experience.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
In the twinkle of an eye, Israel Folau has accomplished what most athletes would be happy to achieve in an entire career in not one, but three sports.
updated 10:14 AM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
Helgi Sveinsson was a promising handball player until bone cancer forced his left leg to be removed. Undaunted, he picked up a javelin.
updated 2:35 PM EST, Wed November 26, 2014
Nguyen Van Chieu has fostered the growth of the Vietnamese marital art since the 1960s, helping the sport go from strength to strength.
updated 1:09 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Carissa Moore is a double world champion and she's still only 22 years old. Her exploits on the ocean are making waves both in and outside surfing.
updated 1:32 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Playing pro ping pong is a bit like running the 100m while playing chess, says Ai Fukuhara.
updated 11:58 AM EST, Wed November 5, 2014
Guor Mading Maker's story makes most sporting tales of triumph over adversity look like a walk in the park.
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
The comparison might irk Michael Jackson purists, but it's easy to see why Kilian Martin's fans liken his fancy footwork to the late "King of Pop."
updated 9:41 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Olympic hero Kosuke Kitajima is hoping to inspire a new generation of Japanese swimming stars ahead of his home 2020 Toyko Games.
updated 5:35 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Much may have changed in post-Communist Romania, but its production line of gymnasts continues to generate champions.
updated 10:53 AM EDT, Wed October 8, 2014
Taking time out to eat a homemade chocolate cake is hardly the conventional way to win a mountain race, but don't tell Emelie Forsberg.
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
He grew up in a surfing party town on the U.S. "space coast" and has conquered waves in the world's most exotic locales.
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Christian Taylor knows all about putting his best foot forward -- but the Olympic triple-jump champion has had to rewire his muscle memory.
updated 9:42 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
It's a surfer's paradise -- but Diah Rahayu is out on her own when it comes to professional women's wave-riding in her native Bali.