By Randy Walker
After reaching the final of the 2014 Madrid Open, Kei Nishikori became the first Japanese player to rank in the top 10 of the ATP Tour computer rankings. Nishikori, however, still has work to do to make the claim of being the greatest – and the actual highest-ranked – Japanese male tennis player ever.
The distinction of being the highest-ranked Japanese man goes to a player from the 1930s named Jiro Satoh. London’s Daily Telegraph provided the authoritative year-end rankings prior the advent of the ATP computer rankings in 1973 and it’s correspondent Wallis Myers accorded Satoh with a ranking of No. 3 in 1933.
Bud Collins, in his famous soon-to-be updated and re-released tome “The Bud Collins History of Tennis,” described Satoh as an “all-rounder” with “nifty touch.” He made the semifinals of the Australian Championships in 1932, the French in 1931 and 1933, and Wimbledon in 1933. Satoh had wins over Hall of Famers Jack Crawford of Australia (who was won match from winning the Grand Slam in 1933), Fred Perry of Britain and Ellsworth Vines of the USA.
Tragically, he was so despondent over a 3-2 loss to Australia in Davis Cup in 1933 – and feeling the immense pressure of leading the team and representing his country - he killed himself by leaping from his ship into Strait of Malacca on April 5, 1934 on the way to the Davis Cup opener in England. “I would have been unable to help…” said his suicide note, according to Collins.
Preceding Satoh on the global tennis scene, also as documented by Collins in his book, was Zenzo “Shimmy” Shimidzu, who was the first Japanese player of note. He also was a top-ten player who attained the No. 4 ranking by Myers for 1921 and is the only Japanese man to play in a Grand Slam singles final. In addition, he led Japan to the Davis Cup final – or “Challenge Round” as it was known at the time.
Collins described Shimidzu as “clever tactician” and a “weird stroker” hitting heavy topspin and hitting his forehand and backhand on the same face of racket. In 1920, he reached the Wimbledon final losing to all-time great Bill Tilden 6-4, 6-4, 13-11 and the next year, losing in the all-comers semifinal to Spain’s Manuel Alonso 3-6, 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 8-6. In Davis Cup, he lead Japan to an upset of powerhouse Australia en route to the 1921 “Challenge Round” where they lost to the Tilden-led USA. Shimidzu came within two points in the third set of beating Tilden on the first day, losing, 5-7, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-1. If not for cramping, he may have pulled on the greatest upsets in tennis history.
For more information on the “The Bud Collins History of Tennis” click here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1937559386/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_F4gOtb0N2F10AQBH