At the Net: Nishikori targets big year

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Kei Nishikori is already the best-ever tennis player to hail from Japan.

But he wants to be even better than that.

Nishikori, who turned 23 last week, has quietly ascended into the ATP World Tour's top 20 and has designs on reaching the top 10 this year.

The native of Shimane, Japan, now residing in Bradenton, Fla., reached a trio of finals over the last two seasons, including his second career title in Tokyo in his native land in October. That title marked his first one since his maiden championship in Delray Beach, Fla., in 2008.

Nishikori also enjoyed a career highlight by landing in a final two years ago in Basel, where there certainly was no shame in losing to the hometown hero -- living legend Roger Federer. His biggest win that week came in the semifinals, where he shocked a high-flying world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals.

The 5-foot-10, 150-pound Nishikori turned pro in 2007, and officially started to make some waves the following year. But it was in 2011 when he hit top gear. Two years ago, Nishikori was a solid 36-22 while being coached by both Dante Bottini and Brad Gilbert, who also mentored current world No. 3 star Andy Murray and former world No. 1s Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick.

"Special Kei" reached a career-high No. 15 in the world back in October and headed into 2013 at No. 19. He was a surprise Australian Open quarterfinalist last year (lost to the U.S. Open and Olympic champion Murray) and reached the quarters at the London Olympic Games (lost to former U.S. Open titlist and eventual Olympic bronze medalist Juan Martin del Potro). And by reaching the quarters in Oz, Nishikori became the first Japanese male in 80 years to reach the Aussie Open's round of eight (but who's counting?).

Nishikori posted a quality 37-18 record in 2012, including a stunning third- round victory over world No. 5 David Ferrer at the Summer Games; a quarterfinal win against world No. 6 Tomas Berdych in Tokyo; a fourth-round victory over world No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Aussie; and a big win over fellow rising star Milos Raonic in the final in Tokyo, where he became the first Japanese man to win the Japan Open in the event's 41-year history. His Melbourne victory over Tsonga was watched by over 55 million people back in Japan.

The ultra-fit Nishikori trains at the famed IMG Academy (Nick Bollettieri Academy) in Florida, where he's coached by the aforementioned Bottini, and he is best known on the circuit for his speed and endurance. He boasts solid groundstrokes with plenty of depth, but, unfortunately for the Japanese grinder, he lacks that one big weapon, just like a Ferrer. However, the "offensive baseliner," like Ferrer, also doesn't have any weaknesses.

"If Kei's serve continues to improve, and if he continues to play an attacking game, he could end up becoming a top-10 player," the legendary coach Bollettieri said last year. "He is the highest-ranked Japanese in their history. He's a great player, he has great movement, and he's a shot-maker."

Japan's biggest tennis export was also a solid 8-3 in Grand Slam action last year, including trips into the third round at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, in addition to that Aussie quarterfinals.

Nishikori is among those teeing it up this week at the ATP's season-opening event in Brisbane as players get ready for the start of the '13 Aussie Open on Jan. 14. He's already secured a berth in the quarters at the hardcourt tourney.

"I'm struggling a little bit on my return, but it's coming," Nishikori said.

"I hope I can be top 10 at the end of this year. That is my goal. It's going to be tough because I had so many injuries these past couple of years, but if I can be healthy all year, I think it is possible to get into quarterfinals and semifinals now at Grand Slams."

Nishikori may not have enough "game" to land in the Grand Slam winners' circle, but he's certainly has enough of it to continue his recent surge and acquire a coveted single-digit ranking.