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Tennis

Nishikori keeping Japan's interest alive

While Japan's tennis audience increases, an interest in playing the sport is dwindling despite a top-12 presence.

Last updated: 30 Aug 2014 17:29
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Nishikori's has helped increase tennis audience in Japan [Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports]

Coaching Kei Nishikori is more than helping just one player, it’s about furthering the dreams of a nation and even a region, according to Michael Chang who started working with the Japanese player last December.

Chang, a former world number two and the youngest ever winner of a Grand Slam, has helped Nishikori win titles in Barcelona and Memphis and break into the top-10 for the first time in May, becoming the first Asian man ever to do so.

Nishikori's career

Career record: 169-100 (62.8%)

Career titles: 5

Highest ranking: 9

Current ranking: 11

Best GS singles results:
Australian Open: QF (2012)
French Open: 4R (2013)
Wimbledon: 4R (2014)
US Open: 4R (2008)

The ambitions don’t stop there: Chang wants Nishikori to win a Grand Slam and maybe become world number one.

Chang was born and raised in America after his Taiwanese parents moved to the country in their youth. But he’s always felt a great affinity with Asia.

“I probably wouldn’t have agreed to coach any player other than Kei,” Chang, who won the French Open as a 17-year-old in 1989, told Al Jazeera.

“I have young kids and a good life in the US, and travelling around the world for tournaments can be tough. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with Kei. He’s a very likeable and endearing person and his game is similar to mine.

“But more than that, it was about maximising this huge potential and thinking about what his success could do for tennis in Asia.”

Nishikori's impact

Nishikori is already a huge star in his homeland. The country’s previous greatest player was Shuzo Matsuoka, a man who captivated the nation with his buccaneering style of play and good looks.

But whereas Matsuoka peaked at 45 in the world rankings, Nishikori reached number nine a few months ago. In 2012, he also became the first home player in 40 years to win the Japan Open, prompting joyous celebrations in the country.

“Whenever we go there, the interest in him is unbelievable,” Chang added. “Kei is a huge star.”

He has lucrative sponsorship deals with big names and regularly features in adverts.

The impact of all this has been huge on Japan. This has helped increase interest in watching the game on TV and at the tournaments. Attendances at the country’s three big tournaments – the Japan Open, Pan Pacific Open and All Japan Tennis Open – increased from 114,357 in 2003 to 164,351 in 2012, a phenomenal jump of 43.7%.

Nishikori isn’t the only pro doing well in Japan. Go Soeda, Tatsumo Ito and Itiroki Moriya are also in the top 200.

Professional players in the country have benefitted from the national tennis centre in Tokyo, which provides good facilities where they can practice together.

Grassroots worries

Nishikori started playing tennis at the age of just four. At the age of 14, he went to the US to join the famed Bolletieri Academy funded by a scholarship. The move proved crucial to his development.

Japan tennis stats

Attendances at the country’s three big tournaments - the Japan Open, Pan Pacific Open and All Japan Tennis Open – increased from 114,357 in 2003 to 164,351 in 2012, a phenomenal jump of 43.7%.

The tennis population – aged 10 and over playing the game more than once in a year – declined from 4.23m in 2002 to 3.73m in 2012.

Numbers aged between 10 and 19 playing at least five times a week, went down from 1.6 million in 2005 to 1.2 milion in 2011.

The number of courts reduced from 38,423 in 1996 to 28,398 in 2008.

But the challenge for the Japanese Tennis Federation is to use this increased interest to bolster participation at grassroots level – something which they are not really achieving at the moment. Japan does have developed professional, adult and high-school leagues, and dozens of community and regional tennis associations.

However, figures given to Al Jazeera by the Japanese Tennis Federation show declining numbers of courts and facilities, fewer people playing the game and an ageing tennis population.

The tennis population – those aged 10 and over playing the game more than once in a year – declined from 4.23m in 2002 to 3.73m in 2012. And the numbers aged between 10 and 19 playing at least five times a week, went down from 1.6 million in 2005 to 1.2 milion in 2011.

Stats on facilities are also worrying: the number of courts declining from 38,423 in 1996 to 28,398 in 2008.

The main reason for this is that many of the country’s courts were provided by private organisations, and during the economic downturn they were no longer considered viable.

Nobuo Kuroyanagi, the Japan Tennis Association president, admits the trends are worrying and needs to be addressed.

Action includes getting tennis on the curriculum in schools and also providing more schemes to get youngsters playing the game, building more courts and increase the exposure for tennis in the media.

Something needs to be done to improve the state of tennis.

“We are seeing a great opportunity for tennis in Japan and Asia as a whole,” Chang said. “Kei is a special player - and they don’t come along very often.”

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