Rinky Hijikata remembers his earliest days watching tennis, supporting fellow Australian Lleyton Hewitt. The former World No. 1 was known for his grit and tenacity.

“I’d be in the backyard pumping my fist, doing his signature come on. I think he was a massive inspiration for me,” Hijikata told ATPTour.com. “I try implement a little bit of that fight in my own game and hopefully I can, even if I’m half the player he was, that would be a great career.”

When Hijikata was young, he would pick up balls for his siblings Shori and Kamiyu, who used to play. His father was a coach.

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“I had a racquet in my hand all the time and would have a little hit in their drink breaks,” Hijikata said. “And then I just loved it from the moment I picked up the racquet and then it hasn’t stopped since.”

It is safe to say Hewitt’s determination has rubbed off on the 21-year-old. Perhaps more than any player in the field over the first round of action, Hijikata has used the crowd to his advantage.

Call it the ‘Hijikata Experience’.

The Australian’s hopes of securing his first Grand Slam main draw win appeared slim on Monday evening at Melbourne Park. German Yannick Hanfmann led their clash two sets to love and earned a break point at 3-3 in the third set.

But with the Court 8 crowd’s backing, Hijikata sprung to life. Increasingly, he conducted the crowd with his racquet to build the atmosphere. By the fifth set, Hijikata was the star of a show, not just a tennis match.

Hijikata earns a hard-fought five-set victory at the 2023 Australian Open. Credit: Mackenzie Sweetnam/Getty Images

“For me, it’s just fun to compete,” Hijikata said. “It’s fun to feel under pressure and really have your back against the wall and see what you’re made of.

“That’s why I played the sport. Because I love competing. I love seeing how far I can push myself. When you’re playing at home and you have a crowd like that, it just makes everything 10 times better.”

Hijikata’s tennis answers were not working against Hanfmann. Although the crowd could not play for him, the fans were able to provide energy and help him lift his level.

“I was just trying to find any kind of hope I had in the match,” the Australian said. “And the crowd really started to get me going and I just tried to really ride that wave for as long as I could and just go out swinging if I was going to lose.”

Hijikata admitted he had nerves entering the match. But with his back against the wall, the home favourite unlocked his competitive spirit and with it, some of his best tennis.

“I think I was down two sets to love and break points and in my head I’m thinking, ‘I’m probably not winning this match anyway’,” Hijikata said. “I’m thinking I am probably off the court in 15 minutes if I keep playing the way I am. So, I may as well go down swinging and try to play my game the best I could and try to get a lot more aggressive than I was at the time.”

Hijikata is used to playing in raucous atmospheres. The Australian competed as a student-athlete at the University of North Carolina for two seasons, with his last match for the school coming in 2021.

“College tennis really sets you up for matches like that and in massive atmospheres,” Hijikata said. “You play your home matches in front of a packed crowd and everyone’s really getting behind you and then you play away when everyone’s kind of chirping you and getting stuck into you.

“You have to be a really good player under pressure in college. And I think I grew so much in my two years there. I am so thankful to my coaches at North Carolina for giving me a shot there and making sure I improved as much as I did.”

His former teammates rave about his energy. William Blumberg, one of the Top 100 players in the Pepperstone ATP Doubles Rankings, said he had the most energy on the team.

Hijikata pumps up the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Credit: Sarah Stier/Getty Images

“He always would be screaming nonstop during matches and firing everyone up, so I think those environments and those moments are better and beneficial for him. He always feeds off the energy and never shies away from a big moment,” Blumberg said. “He’d sometimes tell me, there’s this David Goggins video that he loves and it was like, ‘You’re tired, lick your lips!’ He’s definitely intense and he loves the big moments. He loves being tough and he thrives off it so those moments and staying tough are primed for him to succeed.”

Alexa Graham, a member of the UNC women’s team while Hijikata competed at Chapel Hill, explained that the team had faith even in tough moments that the Australian would find a way to turn around a match.

“I’ve gotten to watch Rinky play a lot of matches and no matter how many times he seemed like he was going to have a tough match or maybe even not win, me and my teammates always knew he was going to pull out a win,” Graham said. “He was always such a lock no matter where he played and all it took was one point for him to change the momentum against his opponent, to get the crowd fired up, and to ultimately pull out a routine win.

“He was so talented on top of being such a hard worker and this is only the beginning for him and his professional career.”

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The next stop in the ‘Hijikata Experience’ will be one of the biggest stages in all of tennis. The World No. 169 will play third seed Stefanos Tsitsipas Wednesday evening inside Rod Laver Arena. Having won a set against Rafael Nadal at last year’s US Open, the Australian will have no fear when he takes on the Greek.

“I’m pumped. It’s the same thing when I said I played Daniil [Medvedev in Los Cabos] and same thing I said when I played Rafa. I’m very excited. I’m not going to shy away from these matches,” Hijikata said. “These are the ones you dream of playing when you are a kid and why you work so hard.

“I’m going to come out and try to play my game. I’m not going to leave any stone unturned. That’s for sure. I’m going to go out there and give it a massive crack.”

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