This story appears in the May 18 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Kei Nishikori is ranked No. 120 in the world and has won just one ATP title and $413,257 in prize money in two-plus years on the tour. Yet the Japanese 19-year-old earns endorsement cash worthy of a superstar in his home country, where he is a certified celebrity. What gives?
What gives is that Nishikori is Japan's greatest hope in tennis -- no Japanese player has ever won a Grand Slam singles title, and only one has cracked the top 50 -- so companies who market to the country's sports-crazed fans are lobbing cash at him. Huge cash.
Nishikori climbed as high as No. 56 in February, and if he reaches No. 45 -- making him the country's most accomplished player in history -- he'll pocket bonuses from sponsors including Sony, Adidas, Wilson, Electronic Arts, Gatorade and Nissin Foods. Precise numbers aren't available, but some tennis experts say Nishikori's endorsement income could approach the level (low eight figures) of top-10 players such as Andy Roddick and the Williams sisters.
In other words, business as usual for a successful Japanese jock. "It's a society of 130 million people that has a strong bond with athletes and celebrities," says Jim Latham, a marketing guru at Adidas. Except even in Japan, most athletes pulling down eight-figure endorsement incomes have more prominent Q factors based on achievement -- say, Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka in baseball and judo champ Tani Ryoko.
Even Nishikori, known as Special Kei to fans, is mystified by the attention, which probably has less to do with a surge in Japanese tennis interest than with the expectation that he's about to blow up. "I don't really understand it," he says.
Nishikori has lived in Bradenton, Fla., since 2004 and trains with Nick Bollettieri. Yet when he returned to Tokyo last September to play the Japan Open, 60 journalists and six TV crews mobbed his plane. Although Nishikori has slipped in the rankings this year, Bollettieri says his game is worth the hype.
"Kei is a shotmaker," Bollettieri said. "He's quick, and he moves well."
Nishikori's best shot? A low, penetrating forehand that lacks spin, making it tough for opponents to read. Adds Bollettieri: "He comes up with shots you'd think can't be done. You never count him down."
For now, Nishikori is only counting up.