This Bradenton resident gets treated like a rock star. He’s focused on tennis stardom

Kei Nishikori prepares for the 2019 tennis season

Kei Nishikori, ranked in the top 10 in the world in tennis, held his media day at IMG Academy in Bradenton.
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Kei Nishikori, ranked in the top 10 in the world in tennis, held his media day at IMG Academy in Bradenton.

The cameras are lined up, side-by-side, on half of an indoor tennis court at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

There’s a bunch more people filling the seats assembled for a scheduled press conference, but there’s also a restlessness in the air.

That restlessness turns into focus as Kei Nishikori walks through the entrance of IMG’s tennis dome. Photographers, videographers and journalists from his homeland of Japan have spent the day with Nishikori, with a press conference to ask him just about anything as the final act.

Bradenton resident Kei Nishikori prepared for the 2019 tennis season at IMG Academy. Tiffany Tompkins

Nishikori, a Bradenton resident ranked No. 9 in the world, garners attention from Japanese media in much the same manner as when Ichiro Suzuki became the first Japanese position player to play regularly in Major League Baseball.

He’s part-athlete, part-rock star.

“Kei is the first one that actually went to the top,” Tsuyoshi Toya, of Tokyo Broadcast System, said. “... We love to see the higher level of competition in everything.”

This December day marked by a passing Florida thunderstorm is Nishikori’s only offseason availability for Japanese and non-Japanese media alike. It started with his arrival at IMG Academy, subsequent practice session and culminating press conference.

It comes a few weeks before Nishikori is scheduled to begin his 2019 season in Australia. He won last week’s Brisbane International as part of the buildup for the first grand slam event, the Australian Open, of the year.

“My goal is to win Masters of Grand Slam,” the 29-year-old Nishikori said at the December press conference. “And hope I can get into top five again. There’s many goals for 2019.”

Nishikori first cracked the top 10 of the ATP world rankings on May 12, 2014. His career-best ranking is No. 4 in the world, which he last attained on March 20, 2017. In August of that year, Nishikori suffered a devastating injury — tendon tears in his right wrist — that wiped out his season. A dip in the world rankings followed, before Nishikori recovered and played his 2018 season healthy.

“My wrist was bothering me a long time, but other than that I was feeling pretty confident,” Nishikori said. “... My body is getting stronger.”

Kei Nishikori says he’s fully recovered from a wrist injury and is ready to climb the world rankings. Tiffany Tompkins

Now Nishikori is No. 9 in the world taking aim at the Australian Open.

“I hope I can be ready,” Nishikori said.

One wrinkle to Nishikori’s ATP schedule centers on the Miami Open. That’s because the long-standing tournament is going to a new venue starting in 2019, being moved to Hard Rock Stadium from the Crandon Park Tennis Center on Key Biscayne.

“I’m actually excited,” Nishikori said. “I’ve heard it’s a really big place.”

Sports reporter Jason has covered high school, college and pro sports since joining the Bradenton Herald in 2010. He’s won Florida Press Club awards for sports feature and column writing. He currently writes college and pro sports stories for the McClatchy East Region real-time team.