Marin Cilic

Tennis fans emerged into Japan’s early morning sunshine dejected but proud on Tuesday after Kei Nishikori’s bid to become the first Asian man to win a grand slam singles title came to a shuddering halt in New York.

Nishikori’s crushing 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 defeat by Croatian Marin Cilic in the US Open final ended at breakfast time in Japan.

Thousands of fans across the country had woken at the crack of dawn to watch their hero do battle in a contest between little and large.

“Blimey, look at the size of him!” joked dental nurse Kayoko Hashimoto in a Tokyo sports bar as the players shook hands before the match. “Nishikori looks like a midget.”

An hour later with the 1.98 metre (6ft 6in) tall Cilic dominating his 1.78m (5ft 10in) opponent, the 27-year-old was staring forlornly into her beer glass with more than 80 other hardcore fans who had seen their hopes shattered.

“I’m so proud of Nishikori, even if he lost,” said hair stylist Hotaru Shoda, 24. “He did a fantastic job. All Japanese people should be proud of him.”

Her sentiments were echoed by natives of Nishikori’s home town of Matsue in the rural province of Shimane, western Japan, where more than 900 cheering fans packed a convention hall to watch the match on a big screen, with hundreds more unable to get in.

“There was a lot of groaning,” city official Kazufumi Morie told AFP by telephone. “Nishikori is still the first Japanese man to reach a grand slam final, so for the people of Matsue we are very, very proud.”

– Olympic boost –

“Lots of children came to watch this morning,” he added, mindful of the impact Nishikori’s achievements could have on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

“The kids have seen all the media in town and I’m sure Nishikori’s achievement will raise the popularity of tennis.”

Far away from sleepy Shimane, which promotes itself tongue-in-cheek as the “47th most famous prefecture in Japan” — there are only 47 — morning commuters in Tokyo poked their heads through bar windows to check on the match.

A quick look at the screen persuaded most to carry on briskly to the train station.

“Kei beat (Novak) Djokovic (in the semi-finals), he can still beat this guy!” a defiant Daisuke Kuribayashi insisted with a beery slur as Nishikori slipped two sets down, triggering a stampede for another round of beers.

The 26-year-old, who works in a toy shop, was sensibly urged by his friends to have a coffee.

Nishikori’s previous best Grand Slam performance had been in reaching the last eight of the 2012 Australian Open, and not since Kimiko Date reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 1996 has Japanese tennis witnessed anything close to Nishikori’s heroics in New York.

As Cilic served to deliver the coup de grace, Japanese fans broke out into the football chant “Nippon! Nippon!” (“Japan”) — before sportingly applauding the champion as he held the trophy aloft.

“I wanted him to stop bullying little Kei,” said Haruka Igarashi, a 24-year-old sales assistant. “Cilic was too strong. It was like watching Colombia beat Japan (4-1) at the World Cup.” Agence France-Presse

- Advertisement -