Sponsors latch on to increasingly bankable tennis star
KENJI GOROKU, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO -- Kei Nishikori is becoming a force on the tennis court. And as the Japanese star climbs the international ranks, he is becoming a favorite of marketers as well.
After reaching the finals of the U.S. Open last September, Nishikori cruised into the quarterfinals of the first big event of 2015: the Australian Open in Melbourne. The 25-year-old's run ended there -- he fell to Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland on Wednesday -- but his career appears to be headed in the right direction.
In November, Nishikori moved up from No. 7 to No. 5 on the Association of Tennis Professionals rankings. Following the retirement of China's Li Na, who at one point last year was the sport's second-ranked woman, Nishikori is the top-rated Asian in the game.
Time magazine put him on the cover of its Asian edition this month, and inside, eight-time Grand Slam winner Andre Agassi sang his praises. "Kei is one of the few players that I'd pay money to see play," Agassi was quoted as saying.
Speaking of money, Nishikori is racking up earnings in a sport where prize money continues to increase. Along with the four Grand Slams -- the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open -- the ATP organizes numerous other tournaments throughout the year. For the first time, the total payout is expected to top $100 million in 2015.
In addition to what he makes on the court, Nishikori is raking in millions from sponsors, including Japan's Uniqlo. The U.S. business magazine Forbes last year ranked him as the ninth-highest-paid tennis player, estimating his earnings at $11 million, including endorsements.
As Nishikori's profile grows, that figure can be expected to grow along with it. The native of Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, in western Japan, is quickly cementing his status as a leader of the generation that will succeed the current Big Three of Switzerland's Roger Federer, Spain's Rafael Nadal and Serbia's Novak Djokovic.
Call it the Kei effect
The association with Nishikori is paying off for Uniqlo, too.
When the casualwear chain released a polo shirt specially designed for his trip to the Australian Open on Jan. 19, the stock for online sales sold out the same day, according to Mitsuhiro Minowa, a special project leader. Uniqlo scurried to prepare more shirts and began taking pre-orders on Jan. 26.
Nishikori's new on-court outfit, a greenish yellow getup, was a product of collaboration between the company and player. In the past, Nishikori had been reluctant to make requests and impose on Uniqlo's designers. But after a little nudging by the development team, he let it slip that he likes green.
Nishikori now sends clippings of colors he likes, and even his own drawings, to the designers. Minowa said he believes the player is finally comfortable working with the apparel maker.
Other sponsors are betting on the man they call Air K. Tag Heuer, the Swiss watch brand, recently announced that it would extend its contract with Nishikori for three years, starting this year. British luxury automaker Jaguar started selling a special model, dubbed the F-Type Kei Nishikori Edition, in November.
After he made the U.S. Open finals, his management agency IMG fielded a number of sponsorship inquiries. An official at the agency said Nishikori may add two or three sponsors soon, contingent upon the contract terms.
Japanese pay-TV broadcaster Wowow, which shows major tennis tournaments live, is enjoying Nishikori's run. Its subscriber base grew by 153,000 last September, up 260% on the year.
Eyeing the big prize
Nishikori has come a long way from Matsue, where as an elementary school student he became a big fan of "The Prince of Tennis," a manga series by Takeshi Konomi. Even as a youngster, Nishikori showed a knack for manipulating the speed and rotation of a tennis ball.
Masaaki Morita, the honorary president of the Japan Tennis Association -- and Sony co-founder Akio Morita's brother -- remembers Nishikori's enthusiasm for smashing the ball. At the age of 13, Nishikori left Japan to train at the IMG Academy Bollettieri in Florida, which was sponsored by a fund that Morita established with his own fortune.
Nishikori turned professional at 17 and bagged his first ATP title the following year. That made him only the second Japanese man to win an ATP event, after Shuzo Matsuoka.
Another big turning point in Nishikori's career came in late 2013, when former French Open champion Michael Chang became his coach. The impact was immediately noticeable: In the fourth round of the 2014 Australian Open, Nishikori pushed top-seeded Rafael Nadal hard in a losing effort.
Nishikori has seven singles titles so far but is still seeking the big prize -- a Grand Slam victory. This year, his goal was to reach the semifinals at all four big tournaments and win the Masters 1000, the next-most prestigious event.
As he shoots for three out of four semifinals, potential sponsors will be watching.