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Nishikori takes bronze for first Japanese Olympic tennis medal since 1920

Kei Nishikori holds his bronze medal that he won in the men's singles tennis tournament, at the Olympic Tennis Center in Rio de Janeiro, on Aug. 14, 2016. (Mainichi Photo/Masahiro Ogawa)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Japan's Kei Nishikori defeated Spain's Rafael Nadal in men's singles tennis at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics on Aug. 14, taking bronze in what was the first medal for a Japanese athlete in the event in 96 years, the previous ones having been during Japan's first ever Olympics in Antwerp in 1920.

In addition to bringing Japan its first medal in the event in almost a century, Nishikori had the satisfaction of defeating Nadal, one of the "Big Four" in the tennis world.

"Again and again it felt like my spirit would break, but I was able to switch around my state of mind," Nishikori said following the almost three-hour long battle. His face showed a mixture of relief and satisfaction at having walked away with a victory after carrying the weight of national pride on his back.

After winning the first set, Nishikori was leading the second set 5-2 and was within one game's grasp of the medal before Nadal began making a comeback, forcing a third set.

Kei Nishikori competes against Spain's Rafael Nadal at the Olympic Tennis Center in Rio de Janeiro, on Aug. 14, 2016. (Mainichi Photo/Daisuke Wada)

Nishikori said the unique feeling of pressure from competing in the Olympics "made my movements stiff, just as you would expect from this big event." Before the final set, Nishikori left the court to change clothes, spending plenty of time to mentally readjust himself, enough that Nadal became irritated and boos erupted from the crowd.

Following the break "I was able to concentrate on each ball," said Nishikori, whose serves gradually started improving. When he broke Nadal's serve in the fourth game, his confidence returned and stayed there through to the end. Having made it through the pressure, cheers were now waiting for him.

Unlike the tournaments Nishikori usually plays in, wins and losses in Olympic tennis don't affect a player's world ranking, nor is there any prize money. Some athletes were hesitant about participating in a competition that is only for glory, but for Nishikori, who says, "It felt good to be doing my best for Japan," it was a special event.

At the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Japan's Ichiya Kumagai took silver in men's singles tennis, and Kumagai and Seiichiro Kashio took silver in men's doubles. After being dropped from the Olympics shortly afterwards, tennis returned for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but Japan went without success that year. At age 18, Nishikori competed for Japan at the 2008 Beijing Olympics but lost in the first round. Four years later in London, he made the first advancement to the quarterfinals for Japan in 88 years, followed by his success at this Olympics.

Looking ahead to the next Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, Nishikori says, "I want to apply myself harder, become stronger and compete there." (By Hiroyuki Asatsuma, Sports News Department)

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