KUALA LUMPUR - Japanese tennis sensation Kei Nishikori returns to the court this week for the first time since his breakout US Open performance, leading the field as the clear favourite in the Malaysian Open.
Nishikori's exploits in the United States, where he beat world number one Novak Djokovic en route to the first Grand Slam singles final appearance by an Asian man, have sent expectations for the 24-year-old soaring.
Malaysian organisers, crediting the "Nishikori effect", say ticket sales for the men's event have surged well past previous years.
More than 18,000 tickets had been snapped up as of Friday for the sixth edition of the Malaysian Open, they said, surpassing total sales for the entire tournament last year.
Despite his crushing straight-sets loss in the US final to Croatia's Marin Cilic, Nishikori's showing vaulted him to his highest-ever ranking of eighth in the world.
"It was obviously frustrating to lose the (US Open) final," he said last weekend after a hero's welcome back home in Japan.
"But in terms of my tennis career I've taken a very important step and it feels like I've moved a little bit closer to realising my dream of becoming world number one."
Main-draw play starts Monday at Kuala Lumpur's Putra Stadium, and Nishikori is hoping to land his first title of 2014 after two agonising runner-up finishes.
He also bowed out of the Madrid Open final in May through injury. His chances in the $1.02 million tournament gained a boost with world number six Milos Raonic of Canada pulling out at the last minute over fitness concerns.
Also in the mix are Latvia's 13th-ranked Ernests Gulbis and last year's champion Joao Sousa of Portugal.
Australia's Nick Kyrgios - who is half-Malaysian - is set to emerge as a crowd favourite.
Kyrgios memorably defeated Rafael Nadal, world number one at the time, at Wimbledon earlier this year and became the first male debutant to reach the last eight of the tournament in a decade.
Last year's doubles champions Eric Butorac of the United States and Raven Klaasen of South Africa are back to defend.
India's Leander Paes - the oldest man to have won a Grand Slam when he clinched the 2013 US Open doubles with Radek Stepanek at 40 years of age - will team up with Marcin Matkowski of Poland.