Wild card Taro Daniel defeated Jordan Thompson on Thursday to join qualifier Yasutaka Uchiyama in the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships quarter-finals, marking the first time since 1972 that two Japanese players have accomplished the feat. For former Japanese ATP Tour star Shuzo Matsuoka, it has been a long time coming.
“I’m always dreaming [of this]. That’s why I started helping with the juniors 20 years ago,” said Matsuoka, who runs a Japanese camp for kids ranging in age from 10 to 18. “All the men’s tennis [in Japan] is coming together like one. Even 10-year-olds to Davis Cup players, the whole team is on one street. This is the biggest weapon for us. We have to keep going on like this.”
Before Kei Nishikori, Matsuoka was the biggest star in Japanese tennis. Matsuoka was so big that ‘Project 45’ was tagged to Nishikori to inspire him and other Japanese players to try to surpass Matsuoka’s career-high ATP Ranking of No. 46, which he set in July 1992.
You May Also Like: Daniel Creates Japanese History 47 Years In The Making
So it was inspiring for Matsuoka to see four Japanese players reach the second round of this ATP 500 event, the first time that had been done since 2003, when there was a 48-player draw compared to today’s 32. Matsuoka made only one quarter-final from 13 tries at this event.
The two Japanese through to the last eight — Daniel and Uchiyama — have followed different paths. Daniel, who has climbed as high as World No. 64, won an ATP Tour title last year in Istanbul and has defeated Novak Djokovic. Now 26, he first cracked the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings when he was only 22.
“I’ve been telling him from [the] first year [I knew him], you have a chance to be at least Top 30, but you have to play big,” Daniel said. “He can run, but when he just pushes balls back, you can be maybe Top 100, but that’s it: a Challenger player. Now he’s playing ATP Tour tennis.”
As Daniel himself admitted, he did not arrive in Tokyo with much momentum. In his previous five tournaments, he made four ATP Challenger Tour quarter-finals and lost in the first round of US Open qualifying. And Matsuoka believes that after falling in Flushing Meadows, a switch went off.
“I know he was growing up in Spain and I was saying to him that, ‘You will have a big tennis.’ He is very tall, strong, but he was just playing so far back, very close to the umpires. He has to get in and he’s tried to change. But especially this year, he lost his mind, especially after the US Open,” Matsuoka said. “After that he really had to change his tennis and be more aggressive and enjoy. [He] won [his] first round and got lots of confidence. The way he plays now, he can be tough.”
After upsetting second seed Borna Coric in the first round, Daniel said he did not have high expectations entering the week. But against Thompson, he began to feel more nerves as his own expectations grew.
“I think it’s a big deal for the Japanese people, especially two Japanese [making the quarter-finals] without Kei. It’s a pretty rare occasion, obviously,” Daniel said. “Tennis-level wise, I think it’s not that surprising, but when Japanese guys do this in Japan, it’s a special occasion.”
Although this is a special moment for Daniel, he has been under the spotlight before. Uchiyama is a year older, but at a career-high No. 136, he is first finding his stride. The Japanese made his first ATP Tour quarter-final in Brisbane this year and won a Challenger crown in Shanghai last month.
To Matusoka, Uchiyama’s success has been a long time coming.
“I’ve known him since he’s 10. He’s a great player. He’s tall, strong. But he didn’t have a strong mentality… finally he realised that he has to change. This is the first time, he’s changed his life. His tennis and his life are going to change for sure,” Matsuoka said. “When [he came to my] camp, he was so negative. Every time he said, ‘I cannot do this.’ It’s amazing the negative things. So I made him go back home twice and his mother came to me and he was crying he didn’t want to go back.
“If he can make it, he can start playing good tennis and be a good player, a singles player. I’ve been telling him, ‘You should play only doubles. Your personality, your attitude and your mental [game], you’re not for singles. I always said that to him.’ He said to me, ‘Shuzo, I can play the singles.’ You can see it. He was coming back and this is the first time he made it.”
Uchiyama lifted the doubles title in Tokyo two years ago alongside countryman Ben McLachlan. But this is the first time he is into an ATP 500 quarter-final.
“He’s always been a guy who I’ve always wondered why his [ATP] Ranking has been a little bit lower than he should be, because whenever I practise with him, I feel like he’s really good,” Daniel said. “So finally he’s starting to step into where he should be playing. I’m glad to see him doing well.”
Even though Daniel and Uchiyama are in the middle of a historic run, Nishikori has redefined expectations from the home fans. The Japanese icon has ascended as high as World No. 4 and lifted the Tokyo trophy twice, in 2012 and 2014.
“It’s a little bit different because when I was playing, there was no one near the Top 100 except me, so all the attention came on me. But now, it’s Kei. They are happy to win maybe the first round, maybe the second round. It’s an unbelievable thing [to make it to] the quarter-finals,” Matusoka said. “Kei is winning, he’s won a couple times over here, so they always compare with Kei. The other Japanese players have it very tough. When it was [my] time, if this was happening, it’s amazing, all newspapers it’d maybe be the first page. But now with Kei, it’s a little bit different.”
Neither player’s run is over yet. On Friday, Daniel will face John Millman and Uchiyama will play Reilly Opelka, both of whom are unseeded. Based on their performances so far this week, there’s no reason to believe that the Japanese can’t continue making history.
“For Japanese tennis, it’s the biggest thing in a couple years,” Matsuoka said. “We still have a chance with good draws, so we hope they keep going.”