LONDON (AP) It has been a year of firsts for Kei Nishikori. After becoming the first Asian player to qualify for the ATP Finals, the Japanese newcomer claimed his maiden win at the elite tournament on Sunday with a first win over local favorite Andy Murray.
Nishikori, who also reached his first Grand Slam final earlier this year at the U.S. Open, has turned into a major player on the Tour this season, claiming four titles to climb to fifth place in the rankings after improving the mental side of his game.
''I think he hasn't made big changes to technique or any of his shots particularly, but he's playing with more confidence,'' said Murray after his 6-4, 6-4 loss at the O2. ''Because of that, he's able to take more chances and be a little bit more aggressive than he was previously.''
The main reason behind Nishikori's breakthrough has been a change in the 24-year-old player's approach when facing the top players. With the help of coach Michael Chang, the former French Open champion, Nishikori is now able to leave aside the admiration that paralyzed him on his debut on the Tour.
As a result, he posted ten wins over members of the Top 10 this season and defeated Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic en route to the final at Flushing Meadows.
''After turning pro, I was feeling a lot of respect to everybody actually, especially top players,'' said the 5-foot-10 Japanese, who lives in the United States. ''The first time I played Roger (Federer), I could not play anything because I respected him too much. I was not going for the win actually. I was just playing tennis with my idol. That was one of the problems I had.''
One of the smallest players in tennis elite, Nishikori also worked hard to improve his fitness after an early career marred by injuries.
''I'm spending more time in the gym and also on the courts, I'm practicing more during the off-season,'' he said. ''Even when I'm on the Tour, I'm trying to do a little bit of rehab and a little bit of training.''
Placed in a tough Group B along with Roger Federer, Raonic and Murray, Nishikori admitted that he struggled with his nerves early on against the Scot.
''The stadium is huge,'' he said. ''I tried not to look up too much because there were too many people on the top. I started to feel a little bit more confident in the second set, where I was a very, very solid player.''