Wildly popular Kei Nishikori the Ichiro of tennis

Kei Nishikori chats with the press after defeating Viktor Troicki during the fourth round at the Miami Open tennis tournament in Key Biscayne on Monday, March 30, 2015.
Kei Nishikori chats with the press after defeating Viktor Troicki during the fourth round at the Miami Open tennis tournament in Key Biscayne on Monday, March 30, 2015. El Nuevo Herald

He’s never hit a home run or worn New York Yankees pinstripes, but ATP World No. 5 Kei Nishikori now has a face as familiar to avid Asian sports fans as the outfielder who plays for the Miami Marlins and is known by his first name, Ichiro.

Nishikori advanced to the fourth round of the Miami Open on Monday by trouncing 39th-ranked Viktor Troiki of Serbia 6-2, 6-2 in 1 hour 4 minutes.

“I think he’s still the biggest player, I mean, biggest sports player in Japan,’’ Nishikori said of Ichiro after his win. “He’s 41 already, but still playing really good baseball.’’

The wildly popular Japanese 25-year-old, who lives in Bradenton and has trained at the Bollettieri Academy since he was 14 and spoke no English, made the cover of the international edition of TIME magazine in January before the Australian Open.

Nearly 50 Japanese journalists traveled to London in November when Nishikori reached the semifinals of the ATP World Tour Finals, eventually losing to top-ranked Novak Djokovic.

This week, five reporters, two photographers and a TV crew from Japan are chronicling his tournament on Key Biscayne. They haven’t been disappointed, nor has Nishikori, who had to withdraw from the Miami Open last year after reaching the semifinals. Though he posted significant victories against then-fifth-ranked Roger Federer and No. 4 David Ferrer, a groin injury left him unable to continue.

Nishikori has risen 12 spots in the rankings from his 2013 year-end No. 17. On Tuesday, he plays No. 20 David Goffin, a Belgian who defeated Jerzy Janowicz of Poland 6-4, 6-3.

“Last year was really unfortunate that I got injured after the great match against Roger,” Nishikori said, noting that the victory against Federer was “key” in catapulting his confidence. “You can’t really expect when the injury’s coming. It was really sad.

“Now I’m … really feeling great on the court. Hopefully, I can do it again.”

Nishikori’s rise was bolstered when he hired Michael Chang as a coach last year to join fellow coach Dante Bottini.

In the past year, the 5-10, 150-pounder, who entered the tournament with a career earnings of $8,652,361, has become a tenacious competitor who fights to the end and is known for his comebacks.

Last year, Nishikori, the U.S. Open runner-up to Marin Cilic of Croatia, led the ATP Tour with a 21-3 record in decisive sets. This year he is 7-3 in matches after losing the first set.

“It’s always tough to fight with those nervous situations,” said Nishikori, who could rise to as high as No. 3 should he win at Miami. “I get nervous every match, before the match especially. But I think it’s a good sign. That means you want to win.”

In Japan, his countrymen are watching.

“Nishikori is extremely popular now,” said Akatsuki Uchida, at the Miami Open reporting for Smash magazine. “He had been a good player for a couple of years, but things changed dramatically since the U.S. Open. Everyone got crazy about him.

“Ichiro has been a hero in Japan for maybe the last 20 years. Now, you see Nishikori’s face everywhere.”

The young Japanese player, who is a soccer fan and follows Atsuto Uchida, a player with FC Schalke 04 of the German Bundesliga, nonetheless looks up to Ichiro.

“He’s really fit,” Nishikori said. “His body is really strong. There [are] so many things to learn from him. I never met him before, so hopefully I can talk to him sometime.”

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