Futures, Challenger and ATP/WTA qualifying tournaments have long been a proving ground for young talent trying to make a place for themselves on the professional tennis tours. For anyone who follows tennis closely, they will quickly notice the proud Red Sun of Japan dappling draw sheets for these tournaments in numerous places. Japan is producing more and more talent, with numerous players (both men and women) in the 18-23 age range climbing the ATP and WTA rankings toward the top 100. Beyond the more commonly known names like Kei Nishikori, Kimiko Date-Krum, and Go Soeda, new names are finding success in these developmental tournaments and causing ripples in the ponds of professional tennis.
Just last week, nine Japanese men and women played both the Lexington Challenger events and the ATP Atlanta tour stop. In Stanford this week, Misaki Doi qualified for the main draw and pushed Aga Radwanska to three sets before losing in the second round, while Kimiko Date-Krumm proved that the old Japanese guard is still firmly in place, as she posted one of the most celebrated and popular upsets of the WTA season in coming back from 1-6, 1-4 down to beat Sabine Lisicki in three sets. Yasutaka Uchiyama reached the final of the aforementioned Kentucky Bank Open challenger in Lexington, Ky, losing in a tough three set final to John Millman in the final. On the way to the final round he defeated players like #1 seed James Ward, Bjorn Frantangelo, and countryman 19 year old Yoshihito Nishioka. Nishioka made it to the quarters of the main draw at Delray Beach this Spring before losing to Bernard Tomic. Nao Hibino won the women’s challenger in Lexington last week, along with other victories in Stockton, California and Karumi, Japan. Nishioka later went on to qualify for the Citi Open in D.C.
The most successful of the young brigade on the ATP Tour this year has been Taro Daniel. The 22 year old has won two challenger titles this year, and qualified for four main draw events. At 111 in the ATP rankings, Daniel is close to cracking the top 100 for the first time and taking over Go Soeda as the #2 ranked Japanese man behind the ever beloved compatriot Kei Nishikori. Although the success of Nishikori and other professional players like Date-Krum and Ai Sugayama have been important for the boom of players from his home country, Daniel finds it important to note that the success of young Japanese players stems from more than just Nishikori’s success. “There are always many top level junior players and many people in Japan playing the sport in general. Nishikori’s efforts for sure have been one of the key elements for tennis to grow, but our country has always had a great base level of junior players.”
Daniel gives credit to the Japanese Tennis Federation for building and supporting the sport in his country, making the blooming success of so many young men and women possible on the professional tour. “Especially now, the federation has great support for the players with potential, even more so with the Tokyo Olympics coming up in 2020.” If these young players continue to develop as they are, the fight for the spots in the Olympic tournament will be hard fought. On the men’s side, beyond Nishikori, there are seven Japanese men hovering in the 100-200 range, with successful, highly ranked juniors preparing to turn pro. There are 13 Japanese women hovering in that same range in the WTA rankings, with Karumi Nara being the highest ranked Japanese women at 74th in the world. The upcoming hard court season and then subsequent Asian swing of the tours will be crucial for these players as they battle to represent their country in their home Olympics.
Daniel, like the other Japanese men and women find themselves at an important time in their young careers. Many have been finding success on the future and challenger level of the tour, but as Daniel notes about himself, it is those who can transition this into main draw success, that will truly become successful professionals. “ I have had a good season so far–the challenger wins gave me a confidence boost and help in the rankings…I do feel good about my game, but I have to play more matches against people of higher rankings and learn to beat them soon.” Daniel points out an important aspect of the young Japanese players’ seasons.
Although they have won future and challenger titles, excluding Nishikori, none have made deep runs in important tournaments. For these players to make the jump from being 100th in the world to a top-50 player, they will need to start finding themselves in the 2nd weeks of major tournaments and Slams. As Daniel comments, some of the necessary improvements that will make this possible will happen with time “I have many things to still work on such as physical strength, net game, serve, aggressiveness, and etc. most of the things I have to be better in are related to power and intensity. I think that a lot of it will come together with time naturally, but also with work.”
As these players age and condition, their physical presence on court will continue to develop as Daniel stated. What will separate the players who will make impactful runs in major tourneys will be those whose mental capabilities develop as well. Couple the fact that so much is on the line for these young Japanese players in the next 18 months with the intense competition from their compatriots on tour creates a special and important time for them and their country. It’s important to note Daniel trains in Spain on clay and has ties to New York City as well.
Tennis history has shown us that players often succeed when pushed by other competitors from their home country; Agassi, Chang, Sampras, and Courier; Federer and Wawrinka; Djokovic, Troiki, and Tpsarevic; Monfils, Tsonga, Simon, and Gasquet; Myskina, Dementiava, Kutsnesova; Davenport, Serena, Venus, and Capriati, are just a few of the recent examples of this phenomenon. Which grouping of these potential Japanese stars that will separate themselves from the pack and reach the next level of success on tour is still yet to be seen, but it seems as if it is only a matter of time until this happens for both the men and women.