PARIS // Kei Nishikori has told his Japanese compatriots that they should follow in his footsteps and blaze a trail to the United States if they want to reach the top 20.
The 23-year-old Nishikori is at a career-high 15th in the world, a dizzy climb helped by his stunning defeat of Roger Federer at the Madrid Masters last month.
But he has lived and trained in Florida since he was 14 years old, a move he believes matured him both as a player and an individual.
"For me, it was much easier that I was in the United States because I was able to hit with a lot of players - when I was 14 I was able to hit with [former world No 2] Tommy Haas. He was top 10 at that time," Nishikori said.
"That makes a lot difference. It was easy to go Europe and a lot of tournaments in US.
"Yeah, there are good facilities in Japan and good coaches, but the toughest thing is you need to play a lot of tournaments in Europe or US, because they have more good players.
"It is really tough to go all the way to Europe and those countries. It was a tough decision."
Nishikori begins his French Open campaign against Canada's Jesse Levine today and he is already the last Japanese man left at Roland Garros after Go Soeda went down 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 to Portugal's Joao Sousa during yesterday's play.
Nishikori has yet to get beyond the second round in his three visits to the French Open, falling in qualifying in 2008, then losing to Sergei Stakhovsky of the Ukraine in 2010 and world No 1 Novak Djokovic in 2011.
He was forced out of the 2012 event with injury.
"Hopefully, I will do well. I play Jesse in the first match," said Nishikori, who is seeded 13th.
"We have been playing a lot of practice together, and he was in the same academy.
"So, it's tough to play with friends always, but hopefully I can have a good start to this tournament.
"I never do well here, so hopefully I can have good results this year."
Soeda, the world No 124, trains in Tokyo, but believes Nishikori can inspire other Japenese players to thrive.
"Kei Nishikori is playing well; he's a great player," he said.
"Japanese players hope to be like him."
* Agence France-Presse
Follow us @SprtNationalUAE