Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova. Those and other big names of American and European tennis has always been in the public eye. If you look at the top tennis rankings, you will see a vast majority of Western stars competing with each other.
But What About Japan?
Japan has been behind for over two decades since Kimiko Date and Ai Sugiyama were no longer in charge. The JTA report on tennis popularity confirms its decline: the overall tennis population comprised 3.73 million in 2012 compared to 4.23 million in 2001.
All that changed on September 8, while a young yet promising Naomi Osaka defeated all-time favorite Serena Williams during Miami Open. This event followed by her win at Australian Open instantly made Japanese history, as it was the first time for a Japanese player to become a Grand Slam singles champion.
During the beginning of 2019, the world’s attention was chained to Osaka’s majestic rise. At the same time, Japan continued strengthening itself on the world’s tennis scene. Since 2013, the tennis population has seen its resurgence and now counts 4.39 million players. Still, there are some substantial reasons that explain long-standing Western domination in this realm.
The Difference: Western Tennis vs Japanese Tennis
First of all, tennis originated in Europe with Wimbledon as the oldest tennis tournament in the world. The Japan Open was established only in 1972, which is nearly 100 years later than the first U.S. and European tournaments occurred.
Even though “hard” tennis was relatively popular in Japan in the early 20th century, later enthusiasts modified the game to better suit Japanese tastes. The new kind of sports was born and named “soft tennis”..\
Soft tennis has almost the same rules as a “hard” one, although it uses different equipment — soft rubber balls instead of hard yellow balls — and therefore is called respectively. It has wide recognition across Asia and now is actively played outside of Japan in South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines. It was introduced in Europe in 2004 and has gained some support there, albeit not having chances to compete with traditional tennis.
The next difference between Western and Japanese tennis is that its popularity can’t be fueled by gambling and related activities. Japanese laws include a complete ban on various sports betting besides specific public racing sports, which are one of the few forms of legal gambling there.
All games of chance that are commonly played in Europe are banned as well. The only exception is Pachinko, a local pinball-like slot machine which serves as a substitute to slot machines popular in the West.
Betting on tennis is quite a big business for both bookmakers and the government, making it beneficial for Western countries to foster tennis development. This doesn’t make sense in Japan due to its legal restrictions.
Despite these distinctions, Japanese tennis is witnessing a new wave of its growth, bringing more talented players to the world competition. And while we are expecting for more Japanese players to rise, let’s talk about the existing stars whose skills already became benchmarks for the next-gen.
Osaka became famous overnight after her victory over Serena and was not going to stop at this point. Several months after Miami Open, she won the Grand Slam in Australia for the second time and brought herself the title of the No. 1 WTA ranking in singles.
During the most recent French Open, she lost in the third round to Kateřina Siniaková, though retaining the top ranking. Yet, the recent victory of Ashleigh Barty at Birmingham suddenly shifted Naomi down, with Ash becoming the new No. 1.
However, the gap in points between the girls is not that large, so Osaka is still able to cut her losses this year. It’s still possible even after the brilliant performance of Simona Halep on Wimbledon, as the Romanian’s victory elevated her only to the 4th position in the WTA rankings.
Naomi obviously doesn’t look like an average Japanese, evoking some controversies around her nationality. She was born to Japanese mother and Haitian father and holds dual citizenship of both US and Japan. Due to Japanese laws, she is obliged to choose the only one after turning 22. Will Osaka remain faithful to Japan or leave for the USA instead? That’s the question.
Kei Nishikori is not as hyped now as his female compatriot, but he is the only male Japanese who made it to the World’s Top 5. It happened the day he lost in the final of 2015 Abierto Mexicano Telcel to David Ferrer. He has never won a Grand Slam title, yet he was first among Japanese males to reach the final (2014 US Open). Moreover, he beat the current No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the 2014 Miami Open semifinals.
Despite not reaching No. 1 as Osaka, Nishikori is the best male Japanese player to date. He was predicted to win the French Open this May-June season but only got to quarterfinals where lost to Rafael Nadal, who is often recognized by fans as the King of Clay. Ironically, he lost on the same stage of Wimbledon to Roger Federer, who is similarly to Nadal called the King of Grass.
He is also predicted to have chances of taking over the forthcoming US Open, which tends to have different champions each year.
Japan is known for its wheelchair tennis world dominance with Shingo Kunieda in the lead. He reached his career-high ranking of No. 1 in 2006 and regained the title among male wheelchair tennis players in 2018. He is also known for an astonishing 106-match consecutive win streak that lasted for three years in the period of 2007-2010.
Kunieda, aged 35, is far from retirement. In late 2018, he said that he is going to win all four Grand Slam titles. Unfortunately, he lost Australian, French Open, and Wimbledon, handing over his No. 1 title to Gustavo Fernández, his major rival to date. One Grand Slam to go.
Surprisingly, Japan can boast of one more No. 1 of wheelchair tennis in this decade. Yui Kamiji is an ITF Women’s Wheelchair World Champion who reached her career-high rating of the best wheelchair tennis player in 2014.
Now she experiences the same decline as Kunieda, yielding her position to Diede de Groot. However, she became the first Japanese to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics by winning gold at the Asian Para Games.
Kimiko Date is Japan’s tennis legend. Despite not reaching the maximum WTA rating and never winning any Grand Slam matches, she is a 4-time Champion of Japan Open and reached the semifinals in all Grand Slam tournaments except for US Open.
She is also known for her surprising comeback to big tennis after a 12-year break while being 37 years old. During this period, she won several ITF and WTA titles. Date became the second-oldest tennis player who ever won WTA Tour singles title after Billie Jean King. In 2017, at the age of 45, she eventually retired due to knee and shoulder issues.
Main Photo from Getty