TOKYO - Japanese fans responded with groans and tears when Kei Nishikori was beaten in the final of the US Open on Monday, but took some consolation from the fact he became the first Japanese player to reach a grand slam singles final.
Croatian Marin Cilic swept past Nishikori 6-3 6-3 6-3 in under two hours at New York's Flushing Meadows stadium in a match that got many Japanese out of bed early on Tuesday to cheer for Nishikori before heading out to work and school.
Bleary-eyed fans packed into an event viewing space in the trendy Shibuya area of downtown Tokyo in the rainy dawn to watch the match, chanting "Kei, Kei, Kei" and clapping whenever Nishikori won a point. "It was really too bad he ended up losing," said Kazuya Hirata, 46. "But you can say that history was made."
Nishikori's fairytale run to the final included two gruelling five-set wins over Wimbledon semi-finalist Milos Raonic and Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka and a shock victory over world number one Novak Djokovic but the effort took its toll in the final. "Cilic was just too incredible, that's all you can say," said Hirotsugu Harada, 22. "But it was a proud sight to have Nishikori out there as a representative of Japan."
Tennis competes for attention in Japan with baseball, football and golf, and even with Nishikori in the final there was none of the hysteria that accompanied figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu's gold medal winning performance at this year's Winter Olympics in Sochi.
But Nishikori, 24, still was front page news on the country's newspapers while trains into the centre of Tokyo were emptier than usual, with many riders apparently delaying their commute to watch. Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid attention. "Previously it was unimaginable that a Japanese player could make it onto the court for finals," Abe told reporters. "Nishikori is still young. I hope he keeps on doing his best." No Japanese player had ever made a grand slam singles final before Nishikori although a handful, including Ichiya Kumagae, Jiro Sato, Kazuko Sawamatsu and Kimiko Date-Krumm, all came close, making semi-finals.
Many hoped Nishikori's performance would lead to new interest in the sport in his homeland. "We were sad he lost but we're also really proud that he got as far as he did," one woman in Nishikori's hometown of Matsue, in western Japan, told NHK national television. "I hope he wins the next time - and I think my kids are interested in tennis now." Stocks that had jumped on hopes of a Nishikori win on Monday lost ground on Tuesday.
Racket maker Yonex Co and pay-TV operator Wowow Inc , which had racked up multi-year highs, both tumbled. But Nishikori sponsor Fast Retailing, owner of the Uniqlo casualwear brand, was nearly unchanged.