Osaka Is Just the Beginning: The Rise of Tennis in Japan

Osaka Is Just the Beginning: The Rise of Tennis in Japan

From right to left: Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori and Yoshihito Nishioka

SourceComposite, Sean Culligan/OZY; Image, Getty

Why you should care

With investments in school tennis and a resurgence in the number of players, Japan is preparing for a future as a tennis power. 

With her 114 mph service winner in the second set of her U.S. Open tennis final against Serena Williams in September, Naomi Osaka became an overnight sensation. The 21-year-old seemed as surprised as the crowd that she had just beaten her childhood idol. Fighting back tears, she told the audience, “I know that everybody was cheering for her. I’m sorry it had to end like this. I just want to say thank you for watching the match.”

Osaka’s U.S. Open victory made her the first Japanese player, male or female, to ever win a Grand Slam tournament — Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. But Japan is quietly laying the groundwork for much more success in the sport, a journey that experts expect may find itself further accelerated as Osaka’s win influences a nation of young wannabe tennis stars.

After a decline in its tennis-playing population from 4.23 million in 1993 to 3.73 million in 2013, Japan has witnessed a resurgence, with the most recent figures from the Japan Tennis Association (JTA) showing the country now has 4.39 million players. Though the country’s 6,454 tennis court facilities represent a 30 percent decrease over the past 19 years, the total number of indoor tennis facilities has increased from 462 to 520 in that period, allowing for greater all-weather training.

Japan has been working on their grassroots efforts for the last five-plus years, and they have seen success.

David Haggerty, ITF president

These figures exclude facilities in Japanese schools, which are increasingly adopting the International Tennis Federation’s Tennis Play and Stay campaign, the mission of which is to introduce young children to the sport and retain their interest, say ITF officials. The program ensures starter players have a positive experience by playing on smaller courts with coaches using slower balls.

And while Osaka may be Japan’s biggest tennis name today, there are others who are either edging toward similar success or have already reached the top — and are just not as well known. Kei Nishikori, the only male Japanese singles player to rank inside the world top 5, made it to the semifinal of this year’s U.S. Open but lost to Novak Djokovic. Meanwhile, 23-year-old Yoshihito Nishioka is fresh off his first career ATP World Tour title in 2018. On the ITF’s wheelchair tennis circuit, Japan is a dominant force. Shingo Kunieda is the world’s top-ranking male player, and Yui Kamiji is ranked No. 2 among women. Shiori Funamizu is ranked No. 1 among girls.

“Japan has been working on their grassroots efforts for the last five-plus years, and they have seen success,” says ITF president David Haggerty.

Though it was in tennis that Ichiya Kumagae earned the nation its first (and second) Olympic medals at the 1920 Antwerp Games, Japan has only three total medals in the sport and no golds. Nishikori broke Japan’s 96-year Olympic medal drought in tennis when he defeated Rafael Nadal for the bronze in 2016.

(A compilation of Kei Nishikori’s top shots from the U.S. Open 2018. Credit: U.S. Open Tennis Championships)

While Osaka and Nishikori are shining lights of contemporary Japanese tennis, their journeys are also examples of a deeper challenge that plagues the sport. Osaka represents Japan, the country of her birth, in tennis. But the daughter of a Haitian father and a Japanese mother has lived in the United States since the age of 3. In 2006, the family moved to Florida so that Naomi and her sister, Mari, would have access to better training. Nishikori moved to Florida at age 13 to train at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, and it’s where he still lives today. Along with Spain and France, the U.S. is one of the world’s predominant countries that players choose to hone their skills, because of its established framework for coaching and training. Japan, by contrast, has historically struggled to find success as a tennis training ground.

However, that’s beginning to change, say experts and officials. The JTA is seeing greater participation at all levels; clubs report that they have more registered players and that more courts are being used more frequently, says Haggerty. The country’s new emphasis on promoting tennis among children is a key factor. “They have tennis in more schools, and this is helping to inspire more children to play,” says Haggerty.

In the interest of winning medals on home soil in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the JTA has also launched a special junior player training program to accelerate junior players’ growth toward potential national team member qualification. These programs could produce more players who rank high enough in the world to contend at the major tournaments, including Grand Slams.

But Japan’s renewed focus on tennis isn’t shortsighted and restricted to the Olympics, suggests JTA executive director Hajime Takahashi. Tennis, the JTA believes, can “contribute to people’s sound mental and physical development as well as international amity,” says Takahashi. “The creation of a better environment for tennis will remain as the policy goal of the JTA beyond 2020,” he adds.

Japan still faces challenges if it wants to become a tennis powerhouse. While the JTA is encouraged by the recent upward trend in Japan’s tennis population, explains Takahashi, it can’t be complacent about it. The association knows Japan’s tennis population is not immune from the nation’s aging population and declining birth rates. “Japan’s tennis population is likely to be adversely affected, especially by the aging population, in view of the fact that baby boomers have been playing a big role in sustaining Japan’s tennis population,” Takahashi says.

But the JTA is counting on Osaka’s Grand Slam win inspiring a nation of young tennis players. The impact can already be seen in equipment sales; Japanese manufacturer Yonex Co., which produces an EZONE 98 racket similar to the one Osaka uses, saw a four-fold increase in orders the week following Osaka’s victory.

As those rackets are put to use, and as Japan’s grassroots tennis campaign bears fruit, other players will rise. Osaka and Nishikori may soon cease to dominate the Japanese tennis conversation.

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