Top 9 Japanese tennis players of all time

Kei Nishikori
Kei Nishikori

The Japan Tennis Association was originally founded in 1922 as the Nihon Teikyu Kyoukai, a voluntary organization. Since the introduction of Western-style tennis there, the desire of the Japanese people to interact internationally and to venture onto the global stage has steadily grown stronger.

In 1920, Zenzo Shimizu, who was working at the Kolkata Branch Office of Mitsui & Co. Ltd., went to Wimbledon alone and reached the All Comers’ finals (the semi-finals in the current system). Later that year, at the Antwerp Olympics in August, Ichiya Kumagai, then working at the New York Branch Office of Mitsubishi Goshi Kaisha (Mitsubishi Company), won the silver medal in both singles and doubles matches, partnering with Seiichiro Kashio in the latter.

These were the first medals won by Japanese athletes in Olympic history.

With tennis gaining popularity around the world and especially in Asia, it isn't surprising that the recently concluded US Open saw two Japanese athletes reach the semifinal stage - and one of them would go on to make history by winning the title.

Here, we take a look at the nine best Japanese tennis players of all time:

#9 Ryuki Miki

Ryuki Miki was the first ever Japanese player to win a Grand Slam title. He did so at the Wimbledon Championships of 1934 in the mixed doubles category, partnering Dorothy Round.

While being employed overseas in London by a private firm, Miki took part in amateur tennis tournaments and picked up the game quite well. He participated in the Wimbledon singles competition between 1929 and 1934 and made the third round on three occasions between 1930 to 1933.

He also made the French Open third round once, and was a noted Davis Cup player too.

#8 Seiichiro Kashio

Seiichiro Kashio was a tennis player who competed in the 1920s, and with Ichiya Kumagae was one of the first Japanese Olympic medalists. He won the Canadian Open by defeating American player Walter Westbrook in the final - the biggest trophy a Japanese tennis player had won until that time.

At the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games, Seiichiro and his partner Ichiya won the silver medal in doubles. That was Japan's first ever Olympic medal.

#7 Zenzo Shimizu

Shimizu reached the All-Comers final of the Wimbledon Championship in 1920, where he lost to Bill Tilden 4–6, 4–6, 11-13. At the 1921 Wimbledon Championships, he reached the semifinal which he lost to Manuel Alonso in five sets.

He was a member of Japan's Davis Cup team that finished second to United States in 1921. In 1921, Shimizu won the singles title at the Queen's Club Championship by defeating Mohammed Sleem in the final in straight sets.

#6 Shuzo Matsuoka

Shuzo Matsuoka is most famous in Japan for his run to the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 1995, where he lost to Pete Sampras after winning the first set. He reached a career high ranking of 46 following his Wimbledon exploits.

Matsuoka is the first Japanese player to have won an ATP title. He achieved this in 1992, when he won the Seoul ATP event. He was also the first Japanese player to cross 1 million in prize money earnings.

#5 Ichiya Kumagae

Ichiya Kumagae is one of the most successful Japanese tennis players of all time. He reached a career high ranking of World No. 7 and had a remarkable win-loss record of 165-21 in singles.

Kumagae made the semi-finals of the US Open in 1918, losing to eventual champion Robert Murray in an enthralling five-set contest.

His crowning achievement is winning the silver medal in both the singles and doubles categories at the Antwerp Olympic Games of 1920.

#4 Ai Sugiyama

Ai Sugiyama
Ai Sugiyama

No Japanese tennis player barring Ai Sugiyama has reached the summit of the tennis rankings, be it at the ATP level or WTA level.

Sugiyama was the No. 1 ranked doubles player in October 2000. She also reached a career-high ranking of World No. 8 in singles.

In her 17-year WTA career, Sugiyama won 6 WTA Singles titles and an impressive 28 WTA Doubles titles. At the doubles level she made the finals of all 4 Grand Slams, winning all but the Australian Open where she finished runner-up in 2009 (the year she retired).

Sugiyama also won the 1999 US Open mixed doubles title partnering India's Mahesh Bhupathi.

Sugiyama enjoyed considerable success in singles too. Her best Grand Slam results were quarterfinal appearances at the Australian Open in 2000 and the Wimbledon Championships in 2004.

Sugiyama held the all-time record, for both male and female players, for her 62 consecutive Grand Slam main draw appearances, until she was surpassed by Roger Federer at the 2015 Wimbledon.

#3 Kimiko Date

Kimiko Date
Kimiko Date

Known for her longevity in sport, Kimiko Date is one of Japan's finest female tennis players of all time. She retired from the sport only at the age of 46, in 2017.

She has reached at least the quarterfinal stage of every Grand Slam tournament at the singles level. She even made the semis of the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon in 1994, 1995 and 1996 respectively.

Date attained a career-high ranking of World No. 4 in 1995, and helped Japan reach the semi-finals of the Fed Cup in 1996. In total, she won 8 singles and 6 doubles titles.

After retiring at the peak of her game in 1996, Date returned to the sport 12 years later in 2008. At the Seoul Open of 2009, she became the second oldest player to have a won a WTA tournament.

At the 2014 US Open, at the age of 43, she reached her first doubles Grand Slam semi-final, proving that age is just a number.

#2 Kei Nishikori

Kei Nishikori at the Nitto ATP World Tour Finals
Kei Nishikori at the Nitto ATP World Tour Finals

Kei Nishikori is perhaps the greatest male tennis player to have emerged from Japan. He has won a career prize money of little over 21 million US dollars till date, putting him 14th on the all-time list.

Nishikori reached a career-high ranking of World No. 4 in 2015. After battling injuries and a form slump in the first half of 2018, he made a remarkable improvement in the second half, making the US Open semis and also qualifying for the ATP Finals. He beat the great Roger Federer in the round-robin match at the Finals, before losing his subsequent matches to Dominic Thiem and Kevin Anderson.

Nishikori was a bronze medalist at the 2016 Rio Olympics in the sIngles category - the first time that a Japanese tennis player had won an Olympic medal since 1920. Memorably, Nishikori beat Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the 2014 US Open en-route to his only appearance in a Grand Slam final till date. He finished as the runner-up to Marin Cilic.

#1 Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka at the WTA Finals 2018
Naomi Osaka at the WTA Finals 2018

The only Japanese woman to have ever won a tennis singles Grand Slam title is Naomi Osaka.

Against all odds, battling the great Serena Williams and facing the ire of a very partisan New York crowd, the 20-year-old showed remarkable poise and calmness under pressure to make her country proud at the 2018 US Open.

Such was the significance of her victory in Japan that even the Japanese Prime Minister made her a congratulatory phone call immediately following her historic win.

Osaka's breakthrough season was the 2018 tennis season itself, where she emerged as the highest prize money earner. She won her very first WTA Premier tournament at the BNP Paribas Open early in the year.

Osaka is known to rake up service speeds of over 200 kilometers per hour despite her diminutive stature. In 2016, she was named the WTA Newcomer of the Year, and within two years of that she broke into the top 5 of the WTA rankings.

Edited by Musab Abid
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