They are small. They are lightning-quick. They are fragile.
This is no scout report on the smurfs. This is the stereotype of the Japanese tennis player, a stereotype that carries elements of truth but is largely distorted by our small window into this burgeoning tennis nation.
First, let’s examine the facts. The average Japanese male is 5′ 7″. Japan isn’t the shortest Davis Cup nation in the world by a distance (that would be Indonesia for the trivia buffs). In fact, Japan stands comfortably — shoulder to shoulder — with Kevin Anderson’s South Africa, Guga Kuerten’s Brazil, and a mop of hair below Juan Martin del Potro’s Argentina and Nick Kyrgios’s Australia. Switzerland, the haven for tennis greatness, is merely an inch away. The women, you ask? Same story — Serena’s America is only an inch taller than Japan at 5′ 3″. Only the Russian women have their heads in the clouds, so to speak, at 5′ 5″.
More facts. In a hypothetical race between the fastest runner from every country over 100 meters, the Japanese runner would barely crack the top 30. Only last year did Yoshihide Kiryu (by the way, he is 5′ 9″) become the first Japanese man to break the 10-second barrier. In other words, Usain Bolt gulps down a bottle of Gatorade by the time Kiryu shows up at the finish line.
Then there were the Japanese samurai, the famed warrior class of Japan. Yes, the ones that Tom Cruise led so capably in the movie “The Last Samurai.” The samurai were proud, selfless, skillful with the sword, and almost recklessly brave. Most importantly, they were the tough dudes you wanted on your side of the battle line because they never ever broke down. In other words, the samurai were the opposite of fragile. With a racket in their hands they would have made Federer look silly with their artistry and battled John Isner to 70-68 in the fifth set.
This is the great nation that has now exploded on the tennis map through Kei Nishikori, Naomi Osaka, Taro Daniel, Yuichi Sugita and the Yoshihito Yoshioka. The great nation is actually taller than average, not really lightning quick but tough as nails.
Tennis is a game of microscopic margins often determined by the discerning HawkEye. A lay observer would not be crazy to think that a couple of inches in height could be the difference between a powerful server — read Pete Sampras — and a feisty baseline retriever. Lleyton Hewitt, who carries the reputation of being a Hobbit on a tennis court, isn’t that short. Think about it this way – if Sampras can serve as effectively as Boris Becker, who is a couple of inches taller than Pete, it follows that Kei Nishikori should be fully capable of delivering the same heat as the slightly taller Rafael Nadal. When you run into Nishikori in real life, as I did in Newport once, you are surprised to see a taller than average, highly-sculpted tennis specimen contrary to the Japanese stereotype that is propagated in the media.
An article on CNN said years ago, “The 22-year-old Nishikori relies on a vast array of groundstrokes and blistering speed to counteract the power he often faces in opponents that sometimes tower nearly a foot over him.” The truth is, Nishikori has no more to overcome against anyone than Federer does against del Potro. Nishikori is fast because he is born that way, not because he is Japanese. He is also by no means tiny.
The one Japanese player who is strikingly small is Yoshihito Nishioka. He is as tall as the average Japanese male, but is a midget by tennis standards at 5′ 7″. Nishioka possesses almost supernatural ball-tracking skills, an absolute requirement among the shorter players (others that come to mind are David Ferrer and Diego Schwartzman). He is a mini-Marcelo Rios with the racket, seemingly guiding the ball at will to a distant forlorn corner of the court. Nishioka is quick, not necessarily fast, and anticipates the opponent’s next move like Bobby Fischer. Last year, he took down the human mountain, Ivo Karlovic, in straight sets at Indian Wells, with the same deftness that would befit Murray or Djokovic. The bottom line is that against someone like Karlovic, Nishioka would be equally disadvantaged as a player four inches taller.
But they come in all sizes. Another young Japanese player, Taro Daniel, stunned a below-par Djokovic a few weeks ago, overpowering the great Serbian with his flashy backhand. Taro, who gave us an entertaining interview at Tennis with an Accent, stands at 6′ 3″. Naomi Osaka, now on the cusp of taking over women’s tennis, is a big girl armed with a cannon of a serve that reaches Serena’s velocities. Osaka arguably hits the hardest forehand on the tour.
When Nishikori reached the US Open final in 2014, he crossed a frontier that will only empower more of his countrymen. The real wave of Japanese players is surely coming in the next decade, as young 7- and and 8-year-olds pick up rackets to emulate their idols, Nishikori and Osaka. But the next wave that comes will be a tsunami – tall, imposing, powerful and relentless – because that would better fit the Japanese stereotype.