Nishikori, who reached the final of the U.S. Open in 2014, is now the No. 5–ranked tennis player in the world
Adam Dean—Panos for TIME
January 8, 2015 10:28 AM EST

Kei Nishikori, the world’s No. 5 male tennis player, is dressed in a chicken suit. It’s yellow, fluffy and the tail wiggle-waggles when Nishikori lopes on court. Other tennis players wouldn’t be caught dead engaging in such fowl play. Roger Federer is too suave, Rafael Nadal too macho, and what the dour Andy­ Murray might say if you asked him to dress up as a chicken couldn’t be printed in a family magazine. But Japan’s top tennis pro, the only Asian man to have climbed so high in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) singles rankings, beams a genuine grin. The 10,000-strong crowd at this exhibition match in Tokyo, which nearly sold out in an hour thanks to Nishikori’s star power, cheers appreciatively. “I love chickens,” Nishikori says, giving his arms an experimental flap before heading out to please the audience at Ariake Coliseum. “Everyone loves chickens, don’t they?”

The passion for poultry may not be quite as abundant as the 25-year-old Japanese tennis phenom imagines. But in a sport craving new champions—not to mention a continent yearning for male athletic icons—who doesn’t love Kei Nishikori? Last year served as a breakout for Nishikori, who won four tournaments and reached the final of the U.S. Open, the first time an Asian man has made it that far in a Grand Slam in ATP history. In the U.S. Open semifinals, he felled a giant of the game, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, and in a year-ender tournament dispatched Murray as well. Nishikori, who is gearing up for the Australian Open that starts on Jan. 19 in Melbourne, is currently the only Asian player, male or female, in the game’s top 20. “Kei is one of the few players that I’d pay money to see play,” says Andre Agassi, who participated in the November exhibition match in Tokyo. “He’s one of the greatest shotmakers in the game, so I don’t see why he can’t proceed further [up the rankings].”

Off court, Nishikori’s stock has soared even higher. Though Nishikori started off 2014 ranked 17th in the world, he had already scored the kind of advertising deals normally reserved for the most elite players. From June 2013 to June 2014, Nishikori earned $9 million off court, according to Forbes, thanks to contracts from the likes of Tag Heuer, Uniqlo, Delta Airlines and Nissin, the instant-noodle purveyor that dressed him in a chicken suit. Now that he ranks in the top five, the Japanese ace boasts a Nissin cup noodle emblazoned with his face and his own limited-edition car, an orange F-Type Jaguar that costs at least $89,000 and is decorated with his autograph. Two dozen Japanese journalists cover nothing but the Kei Nishikori beat.

Sports are where national character takes the field. It’s an inexact science, of course. Not all Brazilian footballers dance across the pitch, and not all Chinese gymnasts tumble with robotic precision. And for all the adulation Nishikori receives at home, his success is rooted in a rejection of his homeland: as a teenager he left ordered, collectivist Japan to discover his individual talent in the U.S. Westerners may consider Nishikori—at 178 cm he is the second shortest player in the top 10 after Spaniard David Ferrer—deeply Japanese, with his tactical precision and boundless discipline. Nishikori’s fleet footwork and potent shotmaking also compensate for his underwhelming serve.

But many Japanese don’t consider Nishikori completely Japanese anymore: his aggressive prowling of the baseline and his leaping forehand aren’t products of Japanese-style tennis, which tends to favor skill and finesse over power and brio. “Culturally, maybe Asians don’t tend to have as much confidence as Americans do,” says Nishikori. “I’m Japanese, of course, but spending so long in America has made me into a different kind of person.”

The fact that Nishikori’s game was shaped overseas raises an uncomfortable question about Japan: Why have so many of the nation’s most accomplished citizens had to leave home in order to thrive? From writer Haruki Murakami, who spends part of the year abroad, to fashion designers Kenzo Takada, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, each of whom has worked in Paris, to conductor Seiji Ozawa, who led orchestras in Boston and Vienna, domestic abandonment can seem a prerequisite to innovation. It’s true that these prodigal sons have been welcomed back by Japanese fans. But is their society fundamentally too rigid to allow for creative ferment?

In a sports biography about his son, Nishikori’s father Kiyoshi explained why he allowed his 14-year-old boy to be shipped to Florida to train full time. “Japanese tennis players have not been very successful,” Kiyoshi said, “because their individualism is weak compared to overseas players.” Even today, Nishikori’s longtime agent, IMG tennis vice president Olivier van Lindonk, says he’s not sure his Japanese charge “totally gets it,” despite the years steeped in brash American society. “Japan’s such a respectful culture,” van Lindonk says. “But you don’t get ahead in tennis by bowing.”

The American Connection

In the early 2000s, Masaaki Morita, the younger brother of Sony founder Akio Morita, was contemplating retirement as a Sony executive and seeking a new challenge. A tennis fan, he knew that despite the sport’s popularity in Japan—some 3.7 million play for fun, and top local players can make a decent living on the domestic circuit—the highest a Japanese man had ever climbed in the ATP was Shuzo Matsuoka’s 46th place in the 1992 ranking. (Japanese women, like Kimiko Date-Krumm and Ai Sugiyama, have fared better, vaulting into the top 10.) Tennis mediocrity was hardly befitting of what was then the world’s second largest economy, so Masaaki Morita turned his attention—and cash—toward incubating a Japanese tennis champion. His formula for success, though, jarred the elders of the Japan Tennis Association (JTA): ship the best kids off to the U.S. to unlearn the hierarchical strictures of Japan. “I noticed that Japanese kids played a beautiful technical game at home but they couldn’t win overseas,” says Morita, who serves as an honorary president of the JTA. “My idea to send them abroad was considered surprising, but we had to try something different.”

Nishikori began playing tennis at age 5, after his father returned from a business trip to the U.S. with a kid’s racket. Tennis is notorious for its hard-driving parents, who live vicariously through their children. But Nishikori’s parents—Kiyoshi, an engineer, and Eri, a piano teacher—were hardly sports-obsessed, though they supported his passion. By 2001, Nishikori was Japan’s junior champion.

Then came decision time. Morita offered a scholarship to Nishikori to leave his hometown in western Shimane prefecture­—best known for tea ceremonies and ancient shrines—for the IMG Academy in Florida, which had produced Agassi and Maria Sharapova, among many other stars. Though it meant traveling more than 12,000 km to live in an unfamiliar culture, Nishikori had no doubts. “I knew immediately I wanted to go to Florida,” he says. “I would do anything for tennis.”

Project 45

nlike some other foreign prodigies in the famous tennis program, Nishikori hadn’t fled from the war-torn Balkans or an impoverished Siberian outpost. But that doesn’t mean he had it easy. He didn’t speak much English; he missed rice balls, miso soup and the grilled fish from his seaside hometown of Matsue. “He was such a shy, quiet kid,” says van Lindonk, who has known Nishikori since he arrived in the States. “He couldn’t communicate with anyone. It was supertough.”

Nishikori’s technical game impressed his coaches, but they systematically broke down the rest of his play. They pitted the slight, skinny boy against older, brawnier teenagers, to teach him that the Japanese respect for elders held no place on court. They made him play cheaters and didn’t intervene on his behalf. Other Japanese kids who got Morita scholarships folded under the pressure. Nishikori still remembers the loneliness of those first years. “I didn’t know how to express my opinions,” he says. “I was a bit afraid to say what I thought because I hadn’t yet been influenced by American culture.”

But he persevered and began to appreciate aspects of American life. In Japanese, every verbal exchange requires a quick appraisal of the other person’s social standing; different vocabulary is used to address each social stratum. “In English, you can more easily say what you want,” says Nishikori. “It’s so open and natural. I really appreciate that.” Nishikori also learned that his admiration for older, better players­—proper in Japan—could hold him back. “Even if I really respected them,” he says, “I had to learn to get angry and surpass these athletes in competition.”

Japan’s target for Nishikori was dubbed Project 45—as in one place better than Matsuoka’s No. 46 ranking. “To even say that you’re going to be better than Shuzo, that was controversial in Japan,” says van Lindonk. “It was like you’re trash-talking your elder.” By 2011, Nishikori had surpassed Matsuoka in the ATP ranking, but recurring injuries lost him many months of play. And he needed to build his mental strength as well. In 2008 in San Jose, Calif., Nishikori played Andy Roddick, the feisty American, who cursed him out on court. When asked about that match, which Roddick won, Nishikori blanches. “I’d rather not talk about it,” he says, his usual smile vanishing. “It’s a bit rude to discuss all that. I don’t want to say something bad about another player.”

The Great Asian Hope

in 2003, five asian men ranked in the ATP top 200. Today, there are 18, seven of whom are from Japan. One of their greatest inspirations—and the man who has coached Nishikori since early last year—is not an Asian national but an American one. In 1989, Michael Chang overcame leg cramps and the world’s then No. 1 Ivan Lendl to prevail at the French Open. At just 17 years of age, the Chinese American made history as the youngest man to capture a Grand Slam championship.

Asian women have succeeded in tennis, most recently with China’s Li Na reaching No. 2 in the world before retiring last year with two Grand Slam titles. But no ethnically Asian man has triumphed in a Grand Slam title since Chang’s upset win, leading to worries that their slighter physiques put them at an inherent disadvantage on court. “Asian men don’t get 30 aces given to them,” concedes van Lindonk, noting the rise of big-serve men in today’s tennis like Croatia’s Marin Cilic and Canada’s Milos Raonic.

But the tallest player isn’t necessarily the best player—he still needs to move quickly across the court and sharpen his shots. Federer, at 185 cm, is hardly a giant. “Tennis is the ultimate equalizer,” says Chang, who is 175 cm tall. “You know what, I won the French. I’m the wrong person to ask about how hard it is not to be a big guy. Sure, height gives you advantages but so does agility and smarts and defensive skills.”

Physique aside, the tribal politics of Asian tennis can hold back its players. In China, the most extreme example, provinces know their sports budgets depend on success in local tournaments, so they tend to prioritize domestic play over the international competition where stars are made. Even in Japan, where it’s not the state’s mission to develop athletes, a culture of deferring to seniority makes it hard for youngsters to break free.

Should players make it on the global stage, the pressure can be enormous. Before Nishikori was beaten in the U.S. Open final by the 198-cm Cilic, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that a Japanese victory would be “a historic event not only for Japan but for all of Asia.” Addressing reporters covering the U.N. General Assembly in New York City in September, shortly after the U.S. Open, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recounted how Nishikori had “pushed past the powerful players” at Flushing Meadows. Nishikori’s appearance in the U.S. Open final was the first Japanese accomplishment Abe listed in a long catalog of national milestones.

The last Japanese tennis star to shine so brightly was Jiro Sato, who was ranked No. 3 in the world in the early 1930s. Exhausted after defeating greats like Fred Perry and Sidney Wood, Sato was nevertheless instructed by Japanese tennis officials to participate in the Davis Cup and boarded a ship from Singapore to England in 1934. He never made it. Sato’s teammates found a suicide note in which he fretted that his ill health meant he would be able to do little to assist his countrymen in the tournament. “I ask them to do their best to uphold the honor of our country,” he wrote. “Though not present in body, I will be present in spirit.” Sato was 26 years old when he disappeared off the ship.

Playing the Part

living in the u.s. makes it easier for Nishikori to escape the spotlight—and pressure. “There are so many famous people in the U.S.,” says Chang. “Kei can just be a normal guy without much attention.” In Florida, Nishikori still lives near the IMG Academy campus and retains the same core team he has had for years—from his agent and co-coach to his Japanese trainer. But when he’s back in Japan, every 15-­minute increment in his day is planned. There are endorsement obligations, like donning a chicken costume or promoting a particular mattress brand. Nishikori is expected to spend entire days performing on Japanese TV shows, his face slathered with foundation and his hair tousled just so. “I love Japan and it’s my home,” says Nishikori, “but I can’t really relax here.”

Still, the Japanese tennis ace isn’t so foreign that he doesn’t appreciate an Asian penchant for silly dress. When Nishikori emerges from the locker room in the chicken suit, van Lindonk, a lanky Dutchman, bounds toward him in alarm—no one told him about the costume change. Nissin has essentially bought Nishikori’s naming rights so when his surname appears in Japanese media it’s often accompanied by the instant-noodle brand. But van Lindonk’s distress turns out to be unwarranted. As his and Chang’s children gather around—tennis families tend to travel together—­Nishikori (Nissin Food) breaks into a funky-chicken dance. The other Japanese in the room cheer and clap and emit poultry noises. Van Lindonk returns, shaking his head. “That kid,” he says, “is totally Japanese.”

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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