Kei Nishikori

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

MORE: Simona Halep, Nadia Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal set French Open semifinal clash

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal
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After two years off clay, and three away from the French Open, Roger Federer reached his goal without yet lifting a trophy. A semifinal match with Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.

“If I came back to play on clay,” Federer said after beating Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, “I came back to play Rafa.”

Federer and Nadal will play for the 39th time on Friday (NBC, NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and NBC Sports app French Open semifinals coverage begins at 11 a.m. across all time zones).

Federer owns a personal-best five-match win streak in the rivalry (last meeting in 2017), but he’s 2-13 against Nadal on clay and 0-5 at the French Open. Nadal, an 11-time French Open champ, has the 23-15 edge overall.

“What I will do is try to do my best, so that the victories I have won on this surface against him count for something,” Nadal said after routing Kei Nishikori 6-1, 6-1, 6-3 in a quarterfinal that started and finished during Federer’s 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4 win over Wawrinka. “And he will do his utmost to make sure that his latest victories against me have their weight. And so we’ll see.”

FRENCH OPEN: TV Schedule | Scores | Men’s Draw | Women’s Draw

Federer, a 37-year-old with a male record 20 Grand Slam singles titles, missed the 2016 French Open with a back injury, then skipped the entire clay-court seasons in 2017 and 2018. Main reasons: rest, recovery and to extend his career. It did. After going four straight years without a major title, Federer won three between 2017 and 2018.

He returned to clay this spring and had moderate results, reaching the quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome. After arriving in Paris, he said he felt similar to when he came back from a knee injury to play the Australian Open in 2017. Which he won.

“I feel like I’m playing good tennis, but is it enough or is it enough against the absolute top guys when it really comes to the crunch?” Federer said on the eve of the French Open, which he won for the one and only time 10 years ago. “I’m not sure if it’s in my racket.”

Well, Federer didn’t drop a set in his first four matches in Paris. Wawrinka, who knocked out Federer en route to the 2015 French Open title, was Federer’s first formidable opponent. Perhaps Federer could have finished him off before a 75-minute rain delay if he had converted more than two of 18 break points.

“I exceeded my expectations here,” said Federer, into his first French semifinal since 2012. “I’m very happy to play Rafa, because if you want to do or achieve something on the clay, inevitably, at some stage, you will go through Rafa.”

Nadal, 91-2 all-time at the French, also dropped one set in his first five matches. He entered the tournament as a slight favorite over top-ranked Novak Djokovic, the likely Sunday final opponent for Federer or Nadal.

“Of course after having Roger in front in the semifinals is an extra thing,” Nadal said. “We shared the most important moments of our careers together on court facing each other. So is another episode of this, and happy for that and excited, no? Will be special moment, and let’s try to be ready for it.”

In Tuesday’s women’s quarterfinals, No. 7 Sloane Stephens was upset by No. 26 Jo Konta of Great Britain, 6-1, 6-4.

Konta, a former world No. 4, had been winless in four previous French Open appearances. Now she’s into her third Grand Slam semifinal and first since 2017 Wimbledon. She is the first British woman to reach the semifinals in Paris since Jo Durie in 1983.

Czech Marketa Vondrousova, a 19-year-old ranked No. 38, awaits in Thursday’s semis.

Men’s Quarterfinals
(1) Novak Djokovic – (5) Alexander Zverev (Wednesday)
(4) Dominic Thiem – (10) Karen Khachanov (Wednesday)
(3) Roger Federer def. (24) Stan Wawrinka 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4
(2) Rafael Nadal def. (7) Kei Nishikori, 6-1, 6-1, 6-3

Women’s Quarterfinals
(8) Ashleigh Barty – (14) Madison Keys (Wednesday)
(3) Simona Halep – Amanda Anisimova (Wednesday)
(26) Jo Konta def. (7) Sloane Stephens, 6-1, 6-4
Marketa Vondrousova def. (31) Petra Martic, 7-6 (1), 7-5

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Rafael Nadal quits injured; Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro in U.S. Open final

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NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal retired from his U.S. Open semifinal with right knee pain that has dogged him on and off for years, sending Juan Martin del Potro into Sunday’s final against Novak Djokovic.

Nadal, a 17-time Grand Slam champion, mentioned retirement to the chair umpire midway through the second set, then threw in the towel after dropping the set. Del Potro had a 7-6 (3), 6-2 lead.

Later, the 13-time major winner Djokovic swept Japan’s Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 to reach his seventh U.S. Open final in his last eight appearances.

Nadal said that he first felt a knee problem in his second- or third-round match last week and that it acted up again Friday starting in the fifth game.

“I said to my box immediately that I felt something on the knee,” Nadal said. “After that, I was just trying to see if in some moment the thing can improve during the match. But no, was not the day.

Nadal’s right leg was taped just below the knee in the first set and again in the second, after he had ripped off the tape. The Spaniard winced and limped in the second set.

“Yeah, I waited as much as I can,” said Nadal, who played 15 hours, 54 minutes on court in his first five matches, his most ever en route to a Slam semifinal. “You could imagine very difficult for me to say goodbye before the match finish. But at some point you have to take a decision. It was so difficult for me to keep playing at the same time that way, having too much pain.

“That was not a tennis match at the end, no? It was just one player playing, the other one staying on the other side of the court.

“I hate to retire, but stay one more set out there playing like this will be too much for me.”

After del Potro won the set, Nadal took off his headband, sat down and pulled off his wristbands while a trainer spoke to him. He rose after a quick chat, shook the chair umpire’s hand and then told del Potro.

“When I saw him with bad movements [in the second set], I start to play aggressive, putting him running a lot. Then he decide to stop,” del Potro said. “I love to play with Rafa because he’s the biggest fighter in this sport. I don’t like to see him suffering on court like today, so I’m sad for him.”

The 32-year-old Nadal quit during a match for the second time in four Grand Slams this year. He pulled out during an Australian Open quarterfinal with an upper right leg injury against Marin Cilic in January.

Nadal has been forced out of tournaments due to left and right knee problems over the last decade, withdrawing before 2009 Wimbledon and the 2012 Olympics and during the 2010 Australian Open. Tendonitis has dogged him.

“I cannot compare the knee with other times because the pain on the knee is always very similar,” he said. “The problem is this time was something little bit more aggressive because was in one movement. Was not something progressive. So I don’t know what can happen in a couple of days or in a couple of weeks.

“Is not an injury that tells you six months off, you are back. Is maybe an injury that in one week you feel better, is an injury that maybe in six months you don’t feel better. I know what is going on with the knee.”

Still, he retains the No. 1 ranking no matter if del Potro or Djokovic lifts the U.S. Open trophy Sunday. In 2017, Nadal won his first Slams in three years (the French and U.S. Opens), then won his 11th French Open this year.

He is 45-4 this season, with half the losses being injury retirements.

“I know the things are going the right way,” Nadal said. “I am playing well. I am enjoying on court. I am having a lot of success. I am very competitive at the age of 32. Lot of people in this room, including myself, never will think that at the age of 32 I will be here fighting for titles, fighting for the first positions of the rankings.

“All my career everybody say that because of my style, I will have a short career. I still here.”

Del Potro, a 29-year-old Argentine who is no stranger to injury, made his second career Grand Slam final and his first since his epic run to the 2009 U.S. Open title.

Del Potro, who beat Nadal and Roger Federer at the 2009 U.S. Open, missed three of the last eight U.S. Opens due to left and right wrist surgeries. He contemplated retiring in 2015, during a two-year stretch where he played just two tournaments.

“I didn’t expect to get into another Grand Slam final,” del Potro said. “I had my biggest memories on the tennis court playing on this court … but I was a kid. Now I’m much older. I will try to enjoy one more day.”

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