- Sandra Harwitt
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At the Nick Bollettieri Academy, where Kei Nishikori has been sculpting the game that just earned him his first career title on Sunday, the Japanese teen is referred to as "Project 45."
Why "Project 45," one might ask?
It's because Bollettieri and staff have had a very specific goal in mind for the incredibly talented 18-year-old who landed on their doorstep at 14 to help him become the most successful Japanese male player of all time.
Retired Shuzo Matsuoka, a former coach to Nishikori, had been the last Japanese man to win a title, at Seoul, South Korea, in April 1992. Matsuoka attained the highest ranking for a man from their country on the ATP computer: No. 46.
Hence "Project 45."
As an unknown ranked No. 244, Nishikori traveled across Florida from Bollettieri's in Bradenton to the International Tennis Championships in Delray Beach with the hopes of qualifying for the main draw. Nishikori did better than he expected -- he became the youngest player since a 16-year-old Lleyton Hewitt won Adelaide in 1998 to win a title, stunning top-seeded James Blake into submission Sunday in a 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 final victory and improving his ranking to a career-high No. 131.
"Last night, I tried to imagine winning this final, but couldn't," said always smiling Nishikori, conspicuously overwhelmed by his success. "I was so nervous in the first set I can't believe I beat James Blake."
It's unlikely that Nishikori -- a happy-go-lucky kid who already has a trademark shot, a forehand "jumper" that he hits from at least a foot off the ground and never missed all week -- would be where he is if there weren't a company called Sony.
Masaaki Morita, a member of the founding family and the retired CEO of Sony, has more than high-end electronics among his interests; he has a penchant for tennis. That led to his founding the Masaaki Morita Tennis Fund, which sponsors four promising Japanese players each year for a free ride to train at the Bollettieri Academy.
It's hard not to wonder whether Morita -- the brainpower behind the company's simply stated commercial slogan, "It's a Sony" -- took a first look at the young Nishikori and thought: He's a champion.
"Yes" probably would be a good guess.
Nishikori became one of those lucky youngsters sent to Bollettieri's and seems destined to give Morita a successful return on his investment. Although Nishikori remains close to Morita, he hasn't fallen under the auspices of the fund since giving up his amateur status to turn pro at the AIG Open in Tokyo in October.
"He spoke to him [Morita] twice on the car ride back to [Bradenton]," said Olivier van Lindonk, a natural "big brother" type who helped Nishikori adjust to life at the academy and officially became his IMG agent when he turned pro.
Nishikori spoke not a word of English, and he admits he cried at night from homesickness for two years after arriving in the U.S.
Although Bradenton is no bustling metropolis, it was quite an adjustment for a youngster from Shimane, Japan, a countryside town near Hiroshima, halfway around the world. He roomed for a while with Zach Gilbert, who reportedly is not a chatterbox like his famous father, Brad, and for a time with tour neophyte Jesse Levine.
Eventually, he settled into his new life and found peace with all but American food. Asked how he was going to celebrate his ITC victory, Nishikori said there would be a present for his parents, who will come watch him play next month at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, but was more immediately intent on dinner plans: "I'm going to have sushi." A treat, definitely, but it is hard to forget that earlier in the week he dissed American sushi, proclaiming it just isn't prepared to Japanese standards.
Moments after Nishikori picked up his $68,800 winner's check, he called his parents for the first time all week. Clearly superstitious, Nishikori said after saving four match points to beat third seed Sam Querrey in the semifinals that he would have to be patient and wait to phone home: "I don't talk to them during the tournament. I used to do it when I won a big match, but then I'd talk to them and the next day I'd lose every time."
Mature beyond his years, Nishikori had a more childlike response to finally speaking with his family, who woke up to watch the match on a streaming Internet feed at 4 a.m.
"I almost cried, but I didn't," Nishikori said "I said I couldn't believe [I won] five times. They said, 'It's good you win,'" but his father countered, "But you have tournament next week."
Nishikori wasn't the only person on site who thought of crying when he became the first Japanese man in 16 years to hug a trophy.
"I can cry," said Akatsuki Kobayashi, a Japanese freelance writer based in Los Angeles who jetted in on the red-eye Sunday morning to cover the final for Smash magazine. "It's unbelievable. In Japan, they say, "He's the Japanese Roger [Federer]."
Kenji Shimuzu, a baseball reporter, also turned up for the final. He drove over from Fort Myers, where he is covering Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Red Sox for Yomiuri Shimbun, the leading daily newspaper in Japan.
To date, we've only seen Nishikori on the big stage twice -- at the Indianapolis Tennis Championships, where he became the unknown qualifier in the quarterfinals this past August, and at the ITC in Florida last week.
To be honest, the small handful of journalists in Indianapolis pretty much ignored the then 17-year-old as an aberration among the final eight -- he lost in straight sets to eventual champion Dmitry Tursunov on an outside court on a rain-soaked Friday.
No one, however, was dismissing Nishikori last week.
The teen made the ITC -- a small tournament that has grown from what many considered an annoyance on the tour calendar to a smart seaside stop for players -- his very own playground.
He's clearly an intelligent thinker on the court, and all in attendance marveled at the depth and breadth of his shot-making.
Glenn Weiner became Nishikori's coach in December at the urging of his boss, Bollettieri, and immediately was impressed by the talents of his new charge.
"He's given me goose bumps on several occasions this year already," Weiner said. "When I started working with him in December in practice, I was like, 'I know he's going to be good.' But I took him down to a Challenger in Miami where he played [Gaston] Gaudio [he beat the 2004 French Open champion 6-0, 6-3 in the first round at the Challenger], and that's the first time I got goose bumps and I was like, 'This kid can just hit shots that are a top-20 level.'"
Weiner says the 5-foot-10 150-pounder is low-key and funny off the court but a dynamo on the court, capable of playing both defense and offense: "He's very explosive. His groundstrokes -- he can just put an extra little bit of zip on that ball. When it comes off the strings, it's coming. He's got unbelievable speed, which keeps him in the point longer and for an 18-year-old, the poise he showed, that really impressed me the most against someone like James [Blake] and even Sam [Querrey]."
Although top-10 player Blake wasn't quite ready to predict a new star was born, he knew that was a distinct possibility.
"He can definitely have a bright future," said Blake, who was supposed to be the guy hoisting the ITC trophy. "He's 18 years old and already has a tour title. Not many people can do that I was miles and miles behind him at 18. It's just so hard to gauge how much better somebody is going to get. There is no such thing as a sure thing, definitely going to make it and be a superstar. But the kid has all the tools."
Before the final Sunday, Nishikori was barely a footnote on the ATP Tour. By Monday, van Lindonk had been up fielding calls until 4 a.m. and was at his office in Bradenton by 7 a.m. as interest in his client soared.
"He's not a man of many words, but the things he says, he puts a lot of thought into it," van Lindonk said. "He's actually a funny personality. He's very mature, but every now and then it comes through that he's just an 18-year-old."
Sandra Harwitt is a freelance sportswriter who spends much of her year covering tennis around the world.