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By Scott Riley, Tennis Editor - Archive - Email
Nishikori continues to climb
Kei Nishikori Kei Nishikori is the best-ever Asian player on the men's tour.
Philadelphia, PA ( - With China's Li Na no longer in the fold, Kei Nishikori is now the toast of the town in tennis-crazed Asia.

The 24-year-old always seemed a bit undersized to me and didn't appear to have enough weapons, but, with the exception of his under-6-foot height and small 150-pound frame, things have changed in a big way this year, with a lot of the credit going to his co-coach, former world No. 2 Michael Chang.

What Nishikori, who also works with Dante Bottini, lacks in size and power he makes up for with fitness, speed and heart.

The all-court performer opened 2014 ranked 17th in the world, but even more stellar play has the Japanese overachiever all the way up to a career-high No. 6 on the planet, with his first-ever trip to the prestigious ATP World Tour Finals looking like a safe bet.

The Shimane native entered the year with only three career titles, but '14 alone has seen the fit star nail down four more, including recent ones in Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia, and Tokyo, on home soil. He also has wins in Memphis and Barcelona this year and was a runner-up after reaching his first- ever Grand Slam final, at the U.S. Open, and his first-ever Masters 1000 event, in Madrid.

Did You Know?: Nishikori captured his first-ever ATP title as a spry 18-year- old in Delray Beach, Florida, in 2008.

Nishikori is the only male Japanese player ever to be ranked inside the top 10 and became the first ever male from an Asian country to reach a Grand Slam singles final when he turned the trick in New York last month.

The seven-year-pro fared very well at the majors this year, reaching at least the fourth round at three of the four, with a first-round flameout in Paris marking the lone exception. He enjoyed his best-ever Wimbledon (4th round) and U.S. Open (final) outings. Nishikori was an Australian Open quarterfinalist in 2012, the same year he reached the quarters at the Olympic Games in London.

His recent activity has seen "Special K" go 15-2, including the U.S. Open run and back-to-back titles in Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo before American Jack Sock stunned a weary Japanese warrior in his opening match at the Shanghai Masters in China this week.

At the U.S. Open, the unassuming Nishikori upset world No. 1 superstar Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, Australian Open champ Stan Wawrinka in the quarters, and another top-10 stud, Milos Raonic, in the fourth round. That was a remarkable run that finally came to an end when tall Croat Marin Cilic flattened him in the final in Flushing. Nishikori beat Raonic again in the championship match in Tokyo last week.

The 10-year Florida resident has a nice rivalry going with the 23-year-old Raonic, with the two rising stars meeting four times already this season and the Japanese player going 3-1. Nishikori also topped the Canadian slugger in the third round at the Madrid Masters, while Raonic snuck out his only victory in five career ATP-level meetings in the fourth round at Wimbledon this year.

All his recent success has Nishikori over the $7-million mark in career prize money, including a nice $3.8 million take so far this season.

Did You Know?: Nishikori played now-coach Chang in Tokyo in 2011 to raise money for earthquake relief.

Maybe the 2008 ATP Newcomer of the Year, he of the steady western forehand, really believed that he "belonged" when he stunned the great Roger Federer at the Miami Masters back in March, which marked his second straight victory over the Swiss maestro, with the other big win coming at the Madrid Masters last year. The two wins were sandwiched between victories by Federer in a 2011 final in the Swiss' native Basel and a semifinal in Halle, Germany, this year.

I don't think Nishikori has enough game to actually overtake the likes of Djokovic, Federer or Rafael Nadal, but those guys aren't getting any younger, which could bode well for the nifty Japanese in a couple years.

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