One year ago Yoshihito Nishioka lost in the first round of the Australian Open. It was his lowest low.
The Japanese lefty was struggling to find motivation and fell to No. 123 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. Nishioka was prepared to call it a career.
“Last year was like a nightmare,” Nishioka told ATPTour.com. “My ranking dropped [to] around 120 or something, but then I got a feeling like ‘Oh, I cannot come back anymore [to the] Top 50.’ I said in two years I will retire if I cannot make it. Then the Japanese fans were very surprised with that. It was real, I was thinking like that.”
Nishioka told himself he would focus for two years to try to make the most of his tennis.
“If it doesn’t work, if [I’m not] successful, then I will quit,” Nishioka recalled himself thinking. “After a couple months, I was doing very well and then I got the confidence. Then I got a new coach and he supported me a lot, others [on the] team also [were] very supportive. Now, I’m finally around Top 30.”
One year after contemplating retirement at the Australian Open, Nishioka made personal history Friday. The 27-year-old advanced to the fourth round at a Grand Slam for the first time and climbed to No. 32 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings.
“Last year I was here, I almost was like, ‘I’m done’,” Nishioka said. “I’m very surprised I’m feeling very, very opposite in just a year.”
So what has changed in a year? Nishioka’s attitude, for one. The Japanese star admitted that in the past he would let his emotions get to him during matches.
“I was thinking okay, what’s the best way? Don’t show emotions?” Nishioka said. “I tried it, but for me, I don’t feel great.”
The lefty decided to harness his emotions to power his game.
“I don’t know why, but I played very well. I have a feeling when I have a little bit of a mentality of [using my emotions], I feel very focussed on the match and that’s coming because I want to win,” Nishioka said. “So now I found if I want to win, I need to [get emotional]. But I need to control for sure. Like Novak or like Andy Murray. He’s saying something to the coaches, sounds a little bit upset every point but he’s very on point. Like even Djokovic.
“When you can control the mentality like that, I think it’s very good for me as well. But a couple years ago I couldn’t control [it]. When I was getting upset, I was just upset and I was going crazy. But now I can control how to [get] upset and how to focus on how to beat someone. That’s a big difference I think.”
The turning point came last August in Washington, where Nishioka battled through a difficult draw — Jenson Brooksby, Alex de Minaur, Karen Khachanov, Daniel Evans and Andrey Rublev — to reach the biggest final of his career. The Japanese player has been on the rise since. Later in the year, he began working with a new coach, Christian Zahalka.
“I wasn’t thinking I could be like this before I made the final there. After that, I got a new coach and won the Seoul [ATP] 250, which jumped my ranking up as well,” Nishioka said. “We are still working together and I’m still having good results, in Adelaide and here as well, which is very helpful.”
He added: “I’m very happy for this and I’m really happy to decide that I’m working with him. I believe I can [improve] my ranking and I believe I can make better results for other tournaments as well, so I have great confidence.”
The best players in the world are often known for their strongest shots, whether a booming serve, stunning forehand or rock-solid backhand. The 5’7” Nishioka is known for something else, though, according to Australian Rinky Hijikata.
“Clearly he is not the biggest guy. Neither am I. He is very, very good at finding ways to win and making guys feel uncomfortable on the court, and I think that’s one of his biggest strengths,” Hijikata said. “He is an unbelievable mover, defends really well, and just makes life really miserable for guys out there.”
Nishioka played doubles alongside countryman Ben Mclachlan on Saturday. Although they lost, Mclachlan had plenty of praise for his partner.
“He is just the man. He is playing really well,” Mclachlan said, cracking a smile. “It’s fun to watch him play. I always enjoy watching him play. I mean, the guy doesn’t miss. He is just so quick.”
As much of a turnaround Nishioka has made over the past year, it can get even better over the next week. On Sunday, the lefty will play 18th seed Karen Khachanov for a place in the quarter-finals.
“I have confidence right now. I got seeded here [for the] first time. I’m playing very well, so I’m believing I can play like great players,” said the 31st seed. “Still I’m in the Round of 16, I want to make the quarter-finals or more if I can.
“It’s going to be tough for sure, but I believe I have a chance. I think I can play, so from now I will try my best.”