Winning on a world stage is big business in a celebrity-worshipping market such as China. Li Na discovered this in a hurry after her 2011 French Open breakthrough and with Kei Nishikori becoming the first Japanese man to crack the top 10 in the men’s rankings in May, the appeal of tennis in Asia has never been stronger.
Japanese fans running en masse for limited seating on Wimbledon’s Court 12 as rain cleared for Nishikori’s third-round match with Simone Bolelli on Saturday was a glimpse into the type of fan-craze the 1.78m 24-year-old generates in his home country.
After completing his five-set comeback against Bolelli on Monday, a Japan-only post from Wimbledon’s Facebook page announcing the result scored likes from 63 per cent of the page’s fans in Japan, by far the biggest engagement percentage of any market in the world.
Upon turning professional seven years ago, Nishikori became known as “Project 45” in Japanese circles. The goal was to see him surpass the previous highest ranking held by a Japanese man, 1995 Wimbledon quarter-finalist Shuzo Matsuoka.
He passed that with ease in 2011 when he finished the year ranked No.25 in the world. And after a run to the Masters 1000 final in Madrid this year – where he led Rafael Nadal by a set and 4-3 before injury struck – Nishikori landed at a career-high No.9. Fair to say Project 45 had achieved its goal.
“You saw in the Nadal match, his creativity and speed,” former No.44 Matsuoka said. “I don't think anyone doubts he can win Grand Slams.”
IMG agent Olivier Van Lindonk has spoken of there being more than a dozen Japanese outlets with dedicated reporters who follow Nishikori around the world.
Nishikori’s continued rise up the ranks, combined with the 2008 return from retirement of former world No.4 women’s star Kimiko Date-Krumm’s are given the sport a serious boost in Japan.
Where the now 43-year-old Date-Krumm set the benchmark for Asian women’s tennis in the 1990s, Na has taken it to another level with her two Grand Slam titles and No.2 ranking.
Na’s watershed Roland Garros triumph three years ago launched her into the global marketing stratosphere. She earned an estimated $18.2 million last year, including $3.2 million in prize money, making her the third-highest earning female sportswoman on the planet behind Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. And after winning the 2014 Australian Open title, Na continued to endear herself to fans with her sense of humour; her post-match acceptance speech notching up close to 1 million YouTube views only a day after her triumph.
Asia’s men, until now, have never been able to replicate the same level of success, with Thailand’s former world No.9 Paradorn Srichaphan the only top-10-ranked male player of the modern era.
Already Asia’s most accomplished player, the expectations on Nishikori are building. He is poised to stand alone.
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