MAKING KEI NISHIKORI
Every once in a great while, an athlete comes along who is not only gifted, but is also talented, smart, and a hard worker.
I recall vividly the first time I saw Kei in Tokyo. It was during the selection process, and I knew instantly that this kid was special.
It always excites me when I have the opportunity to work with a player who pushes my buttons and forces me to work harder as a coach. Kei embodied this attitude, and that gave me the satisfaction and motivation to take him to the top. Before I left Kei, he was on track to become the #1 player in the world.
I have always said, and still do, that to become a good coach, you must have three things:
1) a good wife
2) a loyal staff
3) an incredibly talented player.
Kei was the type of player that every coach dreams about.
The Morita Foundation was created and funded by Mr. Masaaki Morita.
Mr. Morita created the Morita Foundation with the purpose of helping develop tennis players from Japan, and his vision was very ambitious. Mr. Morita’s goals included not only developing a #1 ranked WTA and ATP player, but also creating a superstar. He wanted these players to take Japan to the world and be positive athletic representatives of the country he loves. It was very important, therefore, that these players be able to speak English and be able to effectively manage the press through interviews and press conferences. Having these skills would enable the world to recognize them as superstars. Mr. Morita and I have become very close friends over the years, and I love listening to his stories about Sony Corporation. I have learned a great deal from him, and I thoroughly enjoy his company and value his friendship.
Every year in May, I travel to Japan to identify and select the most talented junior players in the country. I prefer to work with players who are twelve years old or younger because I believe it is easier to develop younger players. The Morita Foundation selects the best players from all of the Japanese prefectures and brings them to Tokyo for the selection process. The foundation pays for the students’ tickets and accommodations during this testing period. The majority of the players in this group are the top-ranked players in their age groups. During this process, Mr. Morita also has his most trusted coaches present. They are a vital part of his committee, and they also have input in the decision of which players come to the United States to train.
In the morning session, we evaluate the students based on stroke production, ball-handling, racket head speed, footwork, coordination, and other elements. We also aim to identify how easily they assimilate instruction. In the afternoon session, the students play points so we can evaluate how they construct points and how well they perform under pressure. We also conduct a very comprehensive physical test to determine the physical strengths and weaknesses of the athletes.
At the conclusion of the afternoon session, we (the Morita Tennis Foundation Committee) meet with all of the players and parents. In this meeting, we tell them about the project, how it works, what is expected from them, what they can expect from us, etc. We answer any and all questions that they may have. Later that night, our committee will have another meeting, without the players and parents. During this meeting, we select a tentative team to travel to the United States in January for two weeks to train. This is the final test for the students. We are looking for students who are hard workers, hungry to learn, willing to sacrifice, and who can adapt to the very different lifestyle in the U.S. Following this final two-week testing period in January, the Morita Tennis Foundation (MTF) Committee would decide the final students who would work with me in Florida.
Once the students are in Florida on a full-time basis, they are given very specific goals. These goals are generally encompassed within a three-year plan where have to achieve a specific ITF ranking. In Florida, the MTF has a full-time Japanese coach to help supervise and act as a support system for the students during their transition.
There are several advantages of the Morita Foundation, but these are three of the biggest:
1) All-Expenses Paid. Mr. Morita provided all of the funds necessary for the students to pay for their room, food, training, tournaments, travel, medical care, and incidentals.
2) American and Japanese support systems. Kei had a large Japanese and American team behind him, consisting of a head coach, personal coach, supplemental coaches, trainers, managers, doctors, sports psychologist, nutritionist, physiotherapist, yoga instructor, stringer, teachers, counselors, and translators. In addition, he always had a coach, a liaison (Satao Nakajima), and a conditioning coach from Japan.
3) Influence of Mr. Morita. Mr. Morita is a very influential person in the tennis world. Due to his influence, it was much easier to obtain both junior and professional wildcards.
I first saw Kei play during the selection process, and he was eleven years old at the time. He was ranked #3 in Japan, and I could tell the moment he stepped onto the court how special he was. I distinctly remember how impeccable his footwork and racket head speed were, and I recall how quickly and clearly he saw the openings on the court. His ground strokes were solid, but his volleys were weak, and his serve was very poor. The most impressive aspect of Kei’s game to me was his lack of fear. He had not a trace of fear when he was playing. He was eleven years old, playing in front of Mr. Morita, Davis Cup Captains, Davis Cup players, and some of the best former players ever to come out of Japan, and he did not get intimidated. Whenever he had even the slightest opening, he went for his shots. In my opinion, this is the most important trait a champion must have.
Kei moved to the academy in the United States when he was thirteen years old. He could hardly speak a word of English, but he could say “I want to be number one in the world.” Recognizing his immense talent was easy. He was lightning fast, saw the ball very early, had no fear, and had the presence of a champion. After working with players for many years, I know that talent is everything. Working with talented players requires very organized practices and a lot of energy from the coaches. Like all talented players, Kei forced us to work harder as coaches. He spent thousands of hours optimizing every practice, correcting errors, improving skills, and competing. He had quality practices on a daily basis, filled with energy, passion, and commitment.
Kei was a special student. He understood that he did not have to proved anything to anybody. He just simply went about his business and worked hard. Because he was special, he needed to be treated differently; special players require special treatment. His workouts had to be very individualized, optimizing his skills more often and more precisely in every practice. One of our jobs was to show Kei how much we believed in him, and he recognized the coaches’ confidence in him.
Born Champion. Champions are born, not made, and Kei is a born champion.
Presence. Kei has a presence that is larger than life. He has an elegant walk, straight back, and emits an aura of confidence.
Professional Attitude. From an early age, Kei has had a very professional attitude towards his work.
Attention to Detail. Kei pays very close attention to technique, both in terms of strokes and movement.
Total Improvement. Kei was constantly aiming to improved all aspects of his game: technical, physical, and mental.
Clarity. Kei always displayed tremendous clarity during his practices and matches.
Perseverance. Kei worked extremely hard every day with specific goals in mind.
Demanding. Kei always forced us to work harder as coaches. Backed up by his own work ethic, Kei demanded a lot from the coaching staff.
Understanding of the Game. Kei knows his style of play, and he can figure out and exploits his opponents’ weaknesses very quickly.
Loves to Compete. Kei loves the sport of tennis, and he thrives on competition.
No Fear. Kei plays with absolutely no fear. Champions are generally very aggressive and take advantage of opportunities immediately.
Positive, Selfish, Self-Belief, Self-Reliant, and Independent
High Goals. Kei always set very high goals for himself. When he first came to the U.S., he did not speak English. The only thing he could tell you in English was that his goal was to be number one in the world.
In 1983, I introduced the tennis world to Periodization. I was the first coach to use Periodization in tennis, and the result of the first group of players using my Periodization method was Jim Courier winning the French Open in 1991.
Kei’s Periodization Program was based on a simple plan that divided the overall training program into different periods. This allowed for improvements to be made step by step, month by month, and year by year. Utilizing our proven method, Kei was able to make the greatest improvements, while having fun, preventing injuries, and staying both mentally and physically fresh.
I always plan a student’s Periodization Program starting with his/her goal in the distant future and then working backward to the present, and I did the same with Kei. His goal in the distant future was to be number one in the world by the time he was twenty-two years old. To reach that goal, we first emphasized achieving a high junior ranking. Our goal was for Kei in the world in the juniors by the time he was sixteen years old, and our first target was the French Open. The plan, which is commonly referred to as Training Blocks, required countless hours of planning and constant monitoring. Changes were also made on several occasions to adjust and keep up with Kei’s development.
The goal during this period was to develop a strong foundation and solid fundamentals. Volume is critical to achieving this goal at this age. Kei was training at least three hours daily, and his practices were very individualized. He also spent a lot of time training on the clay courts during this period. I wanted Kei to practice twice daily, but, because he was attending regular American school, he could only practice in the afternoons.
Kei received a lot of individual attention during this stage, and the person I chose to help me with his training was Toru. Toru was a coach from Japan, and he was very good at teaching technique. They spent a lot of time developing racket head speed by hitting swinging volleys out of the basket. Toru would toss the ball with his hand, and Kei would have to generate a very fast racket to execute the shot. Both the forehand and backhand were trained to develop racket head speed. During these years, they also worked a lot on the serving fundamentals. One drill they did every day was practice throwing the American football to teach him proper throwing mechanics.
At this age, it is important to develop the proper technique and fundamentals and eliminate any flaws in the strokes. We spent these years working on the basics on all of Kei’s strokes, but our main emphasis was on improving his serve.
Kei worked on learning how to build and construct points. We engrained in him his GOAL, which was to Control, Hurt, Finish. He was also learning how to play on different surfaces.
We worked on acceleration, developing racket head speed, and put-away forehands.
Kei’s goals during this period was to obtain a Top 10 ITF Junior world ranking. Kei was getting very strong, and his shoulders and lower body were incredibly well-built. His speed had also improved dramatically. He was now training four hours daily on court plus two hours of conditioning. His total daily training time, therefore, was usually at least six hours.
I also felt it necessary at this time to change his personal coach. Toru had done a great job, but it was time for a change. Toru kept Kei isolated and only allowed him to play with the other Japanese students from the Morita Foundation, not taking advantage of the other good players we had at the academy. I replaced Toru with Cesar Castaneda, a coach from Peru who was very familiar with the ITF Junior Circuit.
Kei really came out of his shell during this period. Until he was fifteen years old, he was playing mainly on the back courts of the academy, and Toru had him very protected. One day, I made him play a challenge match against Philip Bester in front of the entire academy. At the time, Philip was one year older than Kei and was one of the best junior players in the world. Prior to this match, Kei did not believe that he belonged on the same court with this level of player. I knew, however, that he was ready, and arranged the match. The match was played at night, and it was advertised everywhere, encouraging all of the students to come and watch. As I suspected, the court was packed with spectators that night. Kei played an incredible match, and he demolished Philip. From that day forward, he had a new coach, and he practiced on the top courts with the rest of the Top Gun students.
At sixteen years old, Kei won the French Open doubles title. Unfortunately, he suffered a stomach injury, causing him to lose in the quarterfinals. I genuinely believe he would have won the singles title as well had he not suffered the injury. We were accomplishing the objectives and hitting our goals.
We continued developing all of Kei’s strokes, putting extra emphasis on his serve. His workouts were very individualized.
Kei learned to have confidence in himself and his abilities. When we traveled with him to ITF tournaments, we made him practice with different players every day. This forced him to learn how to play against different styles of play.
He learned to be independent thinker; he never looked at the stands or at the coach for feedback.
Every day we continued working on racket head speed (acceleration) and weapons, at this stage we also worked on his backhand as a weapon.
Kei’s goal was to obtain a Top 300 ATP Ranking
The coach that I selected at this stage was Rodrigo Vallejo. Cesar did a good job but it was time for the pro circuit and I decided that Rodrigo had more experience in this tournaments, he had play professional for many years and was very familiar with this tour. Rodrigo did a good job with kei, the most important thing that he taught him was to be patient and to hit the ball higher over the net, most Japanese players play on very fast courts so they hit the ball very close to the net with little margin for error, we knew that the only way for Kei to move into the top 300 ATP was by being patient while developing the points and by increasing the margin for error by hitting higher over the net. The only disadvantage was that Rodrigo spoke English with a heavy Spanish accent and sometimes Kei did not understand him, but after all we accomplished the goal, Kei was top 200 ATP.
We continued working on his serve, developing a good consistent slice serve and a very good kick for second serve. Kei also worked on his weapons every day.
For the volley during this year he worked on taking advantage of his speed and closing the net very fast, we used to tell him make contact with the ball in opponents side, a little exaggeration in our part but Kei got the message, his volleys improved tremendously.
We worked very hard on making Kei minimize mistakes by hitting higher over the net. We placed the emphasis on control first, then hurt and last finish.
We continued working on having the best put away forehand in the world from anywhere on the court, Kei would run around every ball to hit his weapon, he had so much confidence in this shot that he was able to attack from any zone.
Kei’s goal at this stage was to obtain a Top 20 ATP Ranking.
Here I made the third change, Rodrigo did a good job and he also reached all the goals that we had asked from him, but Kei and Rodrigo were not getting a long, the language was a barrier. I picked Glen Weiner an ex-ATP player, he had been one of my students and had been top 100 in the world ATP, Glen was from California, very lay back, good communication skills and a lot of years of experience in the professional circuit. Glen was easy to get along with, a good hitter and a hard worker.
We were still working on his serve, at this point Kei had no weaknesses in any of his strokes, and he was very solid from any side.
Kei had to become a lot more aggressive taking advantage of his speed, attacking short balls and since he saw the openings so early we were making sure he capitalized on this opportunities every time.
The emphasis was on international tournaments, I did want him to place the energy on Japanese events, the goals were a lot higher, we were thinking to take him to be number one in the world.
Fifteen to Seventeen Years Old
10/10-10/13Grand Prix #1All
10/10-10/18El Paso TexasITF 5
10/27-11/1South CarolinaITF 2
11/22-11/24Wild Card Eddie HerrAll
11/30-12/7Eddie Herr InternationalITF/USTA
12/8-12/14Orange BowlITF A/USTA
12/13-12/15Jr. Orange BowlUSTA
Seventeen to Eighteen Years Old
9/1/2008US Open JuniorsFutures
Eighteen to Twenty-One Years Old
01/07/2008Aussie Open Qualifiers
03/24/2008Miami Sony Erickson
05/19/2008French Open Qualifiers
At 16 years of age Kei signed with a management firm, he was playing very well and the agency saw a good opportunity specially knowing that Kei was a Japanese player, usually players from that country get very good sponsors, it is easier to get good endorsements for a Japanese player that for players from anywhere else in the world.
He got the first small contracts for shoes, clothing and rackets. In general these type of contracts are 3 to 5 years in duration. When the player starts doing well at this age; the companies will start paying small amounts of money: Clothing US $30,000, rackets US $15,000. Most players use this money to cover their expenses, Kei was fully sponsor by the Morita foundation until he turned 18 years of age.
At the time Kei turned 17 years old, the management company stated to negotiate wild cards for him, some in qualification some in main draws. He started to play his first professional tournaments; at 18 he signed bigger contracts in and out of the tennis industry.
At 19 Kei was doing very well, he was 48 in the ATP ranking and the only player his age ahead of him was Martin del Potro at 49 ATP. The world was paying attention Kei was becoming an idol for all the juniors in the world. He represented Japan in Davis cup against India. He signed a multimillion dollar deal with Sony and cup noodle.