Japanese star Kei Nishikori believes his compatriot Naomi Osaka has the mental strength and character to handle the spotlight thrust upon her after winning back-to-back majors in the space of four months.
Osaka’s Australian Open triumph in January followed her maiden Grand Slam success at the US Open last September. The 21-year-old Japanese became Asia’s first-ever world No. 1 after being ranked outside the top-70 just 12 months earlier.
Her meteoric rise has come with lots of attention, especially in Japan, and Osaka admitted in Dubai, where she lost her opener to Kristina Mladenovic, that the huge public reaction to the news of her coaching split has been tough to deal with.
Nishikori, who is eight years older than Osaka and has been the poster boy for Asian tennis ever since he reached the 2014 US Open final, admits that what she is experiencing is of bigger magnitude compared to what he had to face.
“It’s bit different, I think. It’s much more than me. She’s winning two Grand Slams in a row. Maybe year ago she wasn’t ranked top-10. Suddenly everything changed. She’s No. 1, too. I’ve never been top-three before,” Nishikori told reporters in Dubai, where he is making his tournament debut.
“Everything different. Many pressure, for sure. Being No. 1, winning Grand Slams, that’s something I never had before. It’s a bit different. It’s more than me, I think.
“I’m sure she’s going to adapt. Just need the time. She has great mental, very strong, very calm. She doesn’t get panic too much. I’m sure in time will get used to it.”
Nishikori is the top seed in Dubai this week, where he takes on tricky Frenchman Benoit Paire in the first round. It’s the first time Nishikori has opted to come to the Middle East, and he’ll be looking to keep up the good form he has shown so far this season.
The world No. 6 started his year by winning the title in Brisbane, before making the quarter-finals of the Australian Open and reaching the semis in Rotterdam.
“Well, it was always comfortable to play this week in Acapulco [instead of Dubai]. I used to play Memphis all the time. It was easier for me to play US side,” explained Nishikori on his reasoning behind changing his usual schedule.
“But I chose to play last week in Europe, and Dubai here. I always wanted to come here. Schedule-wise it wasn’t easy. But I chose to come here. Something new. It’s fun. I wanted to play two [ATP] 500s, so I chose to play here.”
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