Japanese Joy: Home Hopes Make History In Tokyo
When Taro Daniel finished off a final-set tie-break upset of second seed Borna Coric on Tuesday afternoon at the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships, it was more than just a victory for Daniel. It was a big win for Japanese tennis.
That’s because Daniel was the fourth Japanese player to reach the second round in Tokyo year, joining Yoshihito Nishioka, Go Soeda and Yasutaka Uchiyama. It is the first time at least four players have made it through the first round here since 2003.
What’s more impressive is that 16 years ago, this event featured a 48-player draw. There are only 32 competitors in the singles field now.
“It’s impressive. Taro Daniel made an impressive win against Coric. Go Soeda beat Struff in the first round,” said World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who plays 35-year-old wild card Soeda in the second round. “Playing at home is always extra motivation, so I’m sure that all the Japanese players feel inspired to play their best tennis. That’s something that I’m expecting from Soeda tomorrow.”
It isn’t as if this Japanese quartet is operating in silos, either. They have been out watching each other play when possible, and eagerly waited to celebrate one another’s victories.
“You’ve got to try to keep a healthy competition instead of jealousy. There are times I do feel a little frightened that they’re going to pass me [in the ATP Rankings], but in the end it’s for the greater good of the sport in the country,” said Daniel, who is the No. 3 Japanese player, behind Kei Nishikori and Nishioka. “It’s a very positive thing and I think we all get along really well… I’m really glad that we’re all doing well this week.
“I like that [we can watch each other] because I don’t think in other sports you can’t really go watch other people’s matches on the court or on the stadium. In tennis you can do that, you can learn from the matches you’re watching and also support people that are closer to you. That’s pretty cool.”
The camaraderie is not something that has gone unnoticed by Tournament Director Nao Kawatei, who has seen the home favourites congratulating each other outside the locker room over the past couple of days.
“This is actually a team,” Kawatei said. “Even when Daniel and Uchiyama came back to the locker room, these Japanese guys were waiting to celebrate each other winning. So they’re working as a very good team.”
Kei Nishikori, the top-ranked Japanese player, was unable to compete at Ariake Tennis Park this year due to injury, but his countrymen have thrilled the home fans nonetheless. After each point Daniel won towards the end of his third set, especially in the tie-break, the Colosseum vibrated from fans’ reactions.
“We haven’t really been in the spotlight the last years because we haven’t been Top 50, Top 100. We’ve been in the 100s and 150s. Now we’re finally able to win matches in [an ATP] 500 tournament,” Daniel said of Japanese players outside of Nishikori. “I think these guys are totally capable of making Top 100 and going pretty far in [ATP] 250s and some [ATP] 500s. So now the [fans] are like, ‘It’s not only Kei’. Obviously Kei’s still the big star, but we can count on some other guys for Davis Cup and ATP Cup, too.”
Kawatei was happy to see players from this country find a way through to the second round. But it’s not something he is stunned by.
“I know how much they’re working very hard, these four Japanese players. It was very unfortunate that [Yuichi] Sugita couldn’t make it, but I know all of them… they’re really working so hard,” Kawatei said. “As a result, it is very good. But it’s not a huge surprise, because I know they have the ability to do that.”
Djokovic expects the crowd to urge on Soeda and for the Japanese to benefit from that energy. The top seed acknowledged that the homegrown success has been nothing but good for the event, Japanese tennis and the fans.
“For the tournament, obviously it’s very positive to have a representation of Japanese players in the tournament, round to round. The deeper they go, the better it is for the tournament, the better it is for the fans, for sponsors, for anybody,” Djokovic said. “I see only positives there.”
These four players now have another opportunity to make the most of competing at home. And there is no doubt that the Tokyo faithful will be behind them every step of the way.
“For the Japanese, playing at the Rakuten Japan Open is very special,” Kawatei said before reflecting on the fans’ support for their home hopes. “These are true tennis fans. They are keen to support these Japanese guys, so I’m sure the [players] have loads of confidence and feel the support and full backup from the spectators.”