(Editors Note: This is the first in a series of updates on players who played in last year’s Winston-Salem Open or have committed to playing in this year’s tournament.)
By John Delong
When Kei Nishikori arrived at the 2011 Winston-Salem Open, he was ranked No. 48 in the South African Airways ATP rankings. He had missed an extended stretch of the summer after chronic elbow problems flared up, and he was simply looking to get some matches in before heading on to the US Open.
Because he didn’t enter until shortly before the tournament, he was forced to go through qualifying. He won those three matches just make the Main Draw, then beat Gilles Muller and Pablo Andujar before losing to Juan Monaco in the third round.
In the time since, the 22-year-old has skyrocketed up the rankings and is playing the best tennis of his young career, with some eye-opening victories to his credit.
He is currently ranked a career-best No. 17, which makes him the highest-ranked Japanese player of the Open Era.
The surge started last October, when he reached the semifinals at the Shanghai Masters and Kuala Lumpur with victories over the likes of Jo-Wilifred Tsonga, Alexandr Dolgopolov and Nicolas Almagro.
Then came the stunner when he beat World No. 1 Novak Djokovic en route to the finals at Basel in November.
He followed that up with his best Grand Slam performance, reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. He again beat Tsonga and 2011 WSO finalist Julien Benneteau along the way before eventually losing to Andy Murray.
"My first goal (this year) was to get Top 20," Nishikori said at the Australian Open. "I can’t believe that already done, already two months. It was fantastic week for me. Now try to get top 15 or something like that."
One of his mentors, Nick Bollettieri, predicts even more success.
"He’s a great shotmaker and a fantastic mover," Bollettieri said. "What we’ve worked on is getting a little more zip on his second serve so it’s not attackable. I feel if he doesn’t get injured, he has a darn good chance of getting into single digits in the rankings."