‘Electric’: Hijikata aims high after Nadal lessons

    The ecstatic support group on that late-August night that included his Japanese-born mum Junko and sister Shori, girlfriend Lauren, former US College coach Tripp Phillips and current Tennis Australia coach Mark Draper rose to their feet, applauding.Then, something else.“We all were sitting there looking at each other with raised eyebrows,’’ says Draper. “It was kinda like, ‘Wow, OK, that’s one set down, can he actually do it?’“It was electric, as you can imagine; when he was able to snag that break in the first set the crowd erupted, and it was a pretty goosebump moment for me, and for probably everyone in the box, and then to close it out with an ace was also exciting.“You’ve got to keep it real and you know that Nadal’s gonna come out stronger and it won’t be easy at all to win the match, but obviously you live in hope that you can keep it going.’’Hijikata could not. Four loose errors in his opening service game of the second set surrendered the momentum to the 22-time major champion during a costly couple of minutes that the 21-year-old wildcard wishes he could have over again.“But it is what it is and I’ll use it for next time to try do better and learn from it, and I guess that’s all you can do,’’ he says of the 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3 result, which followed a competitive 6-4, 6-3 loss to world No.1 Daniil Medvedev in Los Cabos four weeks earlier.Certainly, that New York moment was enormous for the kid who grew up being told he was too small to succeed as a tennis player, then made it onto the sport’s biggest court before a 20,000-plus crowd, against one of the greatest players of all time, while on his way to slashing his ranking almost 200 places to 164th by the end of his first full year on the tour.“I think there’s been a lot of things that people have told me would be my ceiling,’’ says the 177cm Hijikata.“People have said I wasn’t big enough, I wasn’t quick enough, I wasn’t tall enough — all along the way it’s stuff like that that I’ve heard, and it’s nice to keep progressing and keep progressing and keep proving people wrong, and hopefully I can keep doing that.’’*****Makoto and Junko Hijikata’s third child was born after the family emigrated from Tokyo to Sydney in 1998 and settled on the lower North Shore. The US was the original plan, but the Australian visa was quicker and easier, and the lifestyle similar, they were told.So Oz it was.Dad Makoto worked as a tennis coach, and when elder children Shori and Kamiyu were hitting, young Rinky would collect the balls, hang around on the sidelines or grab a racquet during drinks breaks. While his siblings would eventually become swimmers, the youngest Hijikata chose tennis over rugby and was accepted into TA’s national academy in Sydney aged just 10.His first idol was Lleyton Hewitt (178cm), for the way he competed and fought. The next was US Open finalist and former world No.4 Kei Nishikori (also 178cm), Japan’s most successful male player. “Just because he’s not the biggest guy either… kind of maxed out his game and got the most out of it that he could.’’Yet Hijikata was never tempted to try to represent a country other than his birthplace, as, for various reasons, many others in sport have done. “I’ve never really been approached by Japan to play for them. I’ve never even really considered it. I was born here. I’ve grown up here my whole life, so I feel Australian. I feel like I’m as Aussie as it gets.’’The family speaks Japanese at home and, at the risk of resorting to cultural stereotypes, Draper regards Hijikata’s respectful, considerate, well-mannered demeanour as a reflection of his upbringing.He is fluent enough in the language to get by, and was welcomed warmly to a recent pair of Challengers in Kobe and Matsuyama. “I think (the fans) know I’ve got a bit of Japanese heritage and it’s nice going back and playing there because I feel like a lot of people support me there.’’Yet, overall, he has spent far more time in the US, having accepted a scholarship and completed the first half of a business administration degree at the University of North Carolina before deciding to pause his studies to turn pro in 2021, following a sophomore year in which he was named an All-American.Back in Sydney, the college route seemed like the best option for the Eels fan, given that Hijikata felt he had plateaued in the latter stages of his junior career that peaked at No.9 in singles, and was beset by multiple injuries including a stress fracture of the back and broken wrist from the ages of about 14-16.Thus, with mum Junko’s encouragement about the desirability of having a fallback plan, Hijikata delayed the transition to full-time senior tennis to develop himself both on and off court at Chapel Hill.“He’s a skilful player, he’s a good all-round player, there’s no major holes in his game, he likes coming forward, he likes the net, he’s solid off both wings,’’ Draper says.“So at this point in time I think his weapons are his personal qualities, his belief, and just the fact he’s kind of good all-round.’’But not big. Still not big. According to Draper, though, a fighter and a scrapper, who also became a thinker and a problem-solver as a younger player to help compensate for the relative lack of power, particularly on serve. “He’s a very very good tactician, that’s another one of his strengths. He figures out opponents pretty well, and because he’s quite skilful I feel like he can adapt his tactics on the fly on the match court — which, to be fair, normally happens with players who don’t have a massive game.“The guys who can just bomb serves and bomb forehands, it’s kind of like, ‘tThat’s my game’ and if it’s on, that’s all they really need to do. Whereas Rinky being a bit smaller and needing to use his head a little bit more and maybe his tactics a bit more than some of the bigger guys, then that’s what he calls upon.’’Hijikata attributes his steady progress so far, including 50 match wins and four finals in 2022 on the lower-tier circuits and a debut ATP-level victory in Los Cabos, to a willingness to work and learn, and a fiercely competitive streak in everything he does. Tennis, specifically, for now.“I really don’t like losing, so I’ll always try to figure out ways to win even if it kind of seems like a situation where it’s not possible.’’*****Hijikata was in Cleveland, Ohio, preparing for a Challenger tournament when Nadal and Medvedev met in January’s epic Australian Open final — the then world No.346 having retired hurt during the second round of qualifying after making his ATP main draw debut in Melbourne against Maxime Cressy the previous week.Other important entries on his 2022 timeline include a tough yet motivating four-set loss to Nicola Kuhn in the final round of Wimbledon qualifying, and a maiden Challenger title in Playford in October, after eliminating both James Duckworth and Max Purcell.The Medvedev match was, to that point, by far the biggest of his life. He entered it with no idea of what to expect.“I didn’t really know how well I had to play to keep up with those guys, and I think the big thing for me is that the level I’m playing now is good enough to kinda hang with these guys,” he says.“It’s just being able to sustain the level, and then being able to execute under pressure and when it matters most.“Against Medvedev I was a little bit nervous and a little bit tentative. When the moments came I didn’t really try to take it, and I felt like moving forward that’s something I really want to emphasise is backing myself under pressure.’’The next chance came soon enough. By the time Hijikata landed in New York, agent Kelly Wolf’s message was among the first he saw.“My manager had sent me a message saying something like, ‘Welcome to the big house’, or ‘Welcome to the big show’. I hadn’t seen the draw yet and I didn’t really know what she was talking about.’’Twitter soon revealed he had been drawn on line 127, with Nadal in the second seed’s slot at No.128.Welcome to the big time that is grand slam tennis, indeed.“I was pumped after seeing that; those are the kind of players you dream of playing and you want to play and test yourself against.’’If it was slightly daunting to enter the packed pro-Rafa stadium, the happy underdog was determined to compete as hard as he could, even as the pre-match moments alone in the tunnel were a mix of excitement and perhaps a little too much time to think.But he used an important takeaway from the Medvedev match: if he was going to lose against the even more relentless Nadal, it wouldn’t be “because I was not committing to my shots or wasn’t backing myself to win points”.Hijikata told Draper later that the build-up had left him mentally and physically fatigued at the end of the first set, which contributed to the let-down at the start of the next. Both matches were invaluable experiences, though, and Draper says Hijikata’s love of big occasions and stages dates back to his college days.Hmmm. Sound a bit Kyrgios-like?“I’m sure he’d love to have Kyrgios’s serve,’’ laughs Draper.“But he’s got some mongrel and some gumption when he needs it, even with his nice, respectful demeanour.“I’ve seen it a few times during the year that if he’s playing someone who’s a bit of a dick on the court then he will give it as good as he gets. He definitely won’t be intimidated.“He’s a goodie and hopefully another good year ahead.’’*****The former Davis Cup orange boy under greats known as Rusty (Hewitt) and Rochey (Tony), has good Aussie-style nicknames of his own in “Rinkoss, Rinkles, whatever”, and the Turin finals experience last year was not one he’ll forget.Twelve months later, after finishing as the youngest Australian (of 11) in the top 200, from the most tournaments (35), a brief break preceded a punishing pre-season driven by strength and conditioning coach Alistair Murphy to lay the physical base.Court work with Draper has been about sharpening and refining a game in which an improving serve helps to set up points Hijikata likes to dictate with his forehand and can finish at the net, while “being able to come up with a plan B also when things aren’t going all right.“I’m pretty happy with the year I’ve had. I’m pretty proud of the way I’ve gone about it. I’ve spent a lot of weeks on the road and I’ve had a lot of tough weeks, also.“I think I can look back on the year and point out a lot of weeks where I wasn’t playing my best tennis. I think I can do a lot, lot better, and hopefully I can start it off on the right foot in January.’’First stop, Adelaide, and a wildcard into qualifying, and then last week’s confirmation of an invitation directly into the main draw at Melbourne Park, the site of qualifying losses for the past four years.“I’ve dreamt of playing in the tour events and my home slam in Australia,’’ he says. “I’ve watched it since I was a kid, and I can’t really put it into words. It’s something I’ve dreamt of for a long time and I’m really looking forward to it.’’Perhaps, even, a prime-time clash with another of the big dogs, such as nine-time champion Novak Djokovic? “Yeah, I’d love to have another crack,’’ says Hijikata. “I’m never gonna shy away.’’As for that little guy who kept hearing the reasons why he wouldn’t make it in a sport where each goal achieved leads to a new and higher one, Hijikata is unsure what it would take to prove that he has.“Obviously this year’s been great, but I’m still hungry to do better next year,’’ he says of his ambitions. “Obviously I’d love to crack the top 10 and go deep in Slams and play Davis Cup for Australia and do really well.“I think if I can get anywhere near that then I think people can kinda look at me and say, ‘Yeah, he’s done all right, he’s made the most out of what he’s got’.’’

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