MELBOURNE - Swashbuckling Japanese superstar Kei Nishikori has his sights set on not only a Grand Slam title but a further climb through the rankings as he gears up for what could be a defining year.
The 25-year-old has moved to a career-best five in the world from 17 at the beginning of 2014 after a breakout season in which he won four titles and reached the US Open final, losing to Marin Cilic.
Only players of the calibre of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka stand ahead of him, a remarkable achievement for a player who has overcome barriers to make Asian history.
The right-hander stunned Djokovic in the US Open semi-finals last year and has impressed former great Andre Agassi, who said in November it was only a matter of time before he captured a major.
"There is no question in my mind he believes he can win a slam," said Agassi, who won eight Grand Slam titles in an illustrious career.
Nishikori already holds the distinction of being the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam final and as he approaches the opening major of the year at Melbourne Park next week, he has put the sport's big guns on notice.
"Me, (Milos) Raonic, (Grigor) Dimitrov is top three. Cilic, too," he said at the Brisbane International last week in making a bold claim about the rise of the next generation.
"I think we are the ones coming next. We are getting really close from last year. For sure it's going to happen this year." After appearing at the prestigious end-of-season ATP Tour Finals in London last year, Nishikori said he had learnt how to handle the pressure in big matches, which bodes well for the year ahead.
"And I really hate losing," said the crowd-pleaser, nominating the in-form Federer as the player he fears most.
His 2014 heroics were engineered by former French Open champion Michael Chang, brought in as coach to work alongside long-time handler Dante Bottini.
'New star is born'
Nishikori said in Brisbane, where he lost to Raonic in the semi-finals, that his efforts at the US Open had given him enormous belief in his own abilities.
"I have more confidence than before, especially because I won two tournaments after the US Open and played great in London too," he said.
"So I had a great season last year. I had a great preparation in Florida this off-season.
"I think I am doing really well. I think the first couple of tournaments of the year are very important for me to gain a little more confidence and stay at this ranking all the time." The Japanese star reached the fourth round at Melbourne Park for the third year in a row in 2014.
Originally encouraged as a young child by his engineer father Kiyoshi and piano teacher mother Eri to pick up a racquet, Nishikori, like so many others, eventually headed to Florida when he was 14, not speaking a word of English He has been in the US ever since, clinching his first ATP title at Delray Beach in Florida in 2008 when he was ranked 244 in the world.
One of his heroes is Shuzo Matsuoka, widely credited with sparking Japan's love affair with tennis with his 1995 Wimbledon run to a gallant four-set quarter-final defeat at the hands of the great Pete Sampras.
Matsuoka sees a big future for Nishikori.
"A new star is born. His talent is beyond mine," he said on the world number five's website.