The story behind wildcard Rinky Hijikata

RISING Aussie tennis star Rinky Hijikata was in Sydney when he received a phone call from his coach Mark Draper in mid-December.

Draper, the brother of 2005 Australian Open mixed doubles winner, Scott, was calling to inform the 21-year-old that he had received a wildcard into the Australian Open main draw.

“(He said it’s) time to get going, time to put in the work,” Hijikata recalled after a 6-1 7-6 tune-up against China’s Zhizhen Zhang at Kooyong on Tuesday.

It was the perfect Christmas gift to cap off a year where he had done just that, with a 53-29 win-loss record on the second-tier ATP Challenger and ITF circuits to improve more than 200 places in the rankings. The cherry on top of the wildcard was drawing a qualifier in the first round, presenting him with the perfect opportunity to record his maiden grand slam main draw win.

Hijikata’s 2022 form certainly suggests he’s ready to take another stride on his journey this year. He won back-to-back ITF tournaments in USA last March and in October beat compatriots James Duckworth and Max Purcell en-route to the Playford Challenger title.

But it was a match against Rafael Nadal in the US Open in August where he proved himself to the mainstream tennis public. After receiving a wildcard to his debut Grand Slam tournament, he was undaunted by the reputation of his opponent, taking the first set off the all-time great.

“I want to be known to be someone who goes about it the right way, puts in the hard work, maximises their potential and leaves it all out there every time I step out onto the court,” Hijikata said after his Kooyong Classic opener on Tuesday. “I think a lot of the NSW guys pride themselves on that…so I hope I can fill those guys’ shoes and live up to the expectations of being a great NSW player.” 

While Nadal’s experience shone through in the end as he won in four sets, the match proved he could more than tread water when thrown in the deep end.

The right-hander’s ranking currently sits at a career-high 169 after kicking off the year by qualifying for the Adelaide International, and again taking a set off a top-tenner, this time firecracker Denis Shapovalov. Hijikata spent the offseason working on his serves and first returns, hoping that can round off his game nicely.

Standing at 178 centimetres, he is not blessed with the physical attributes of a natural big server, so he has to find other ways to have sustained success in the men’s game. He certainly showed glimpses of a punishing first return in the first set of his Kooyong Classic opener, crushing several weak serves for winners or getting the ball back deep to set up points as he broke his opponent’s serve three times.

In the much tighter second set, Zheng had multiple openings in Hijikata’s service games, but the 21-year-old continued to back himself and eventually won the tiebreaker. He looks comfortable off both wings and played controlled tennis with a dash of aggression when the opportunity presented.

There were occasional lapses expected of a sub-100 ranked player, but there were more glimpses synonymous with an emerging talent.

“I’m trying to keep my body as fresh as possible, just looking after myself and not going too hard this week; it’s important to taper back a little bit heading up to Monday and Tuesday and making sure I will be raring to go and I can leave it all out there,” Hijikata said, a player still learning about how to best prepare for best-of-five set matches.

A product of the US college system, Hijikata spent two years in North Carolina honing his craft to launch a professional tennis career. Yet he says he is “as Aussie as it gets” having grown up watching his home slam and spending all bar two years of his life here.

Hijikata had a beaming smile on his face as the Aussie chant went around Kooyong for him deep in his match on Tuesday evening. Before and after his matches, he made sure he signed autographs and took selfies with each encouraging and desperate fan. 

“I absolutely love the home crowd support, the more people that come to the matches and get around us, the better I think so I hope it’s much of the same next week,” he said.

Alex de Minaur is among a slew of fellow New South Wales players on the ATP and Challenger tours at the moment, Hijikata highlighting the impact the gritty Aussie has had on his career.

“’Demon’ is the closest in age to me, he is only two years older than me, he is someone I have always looked up to because he has been on the same journey, he’s just done it a little bit quicker, he’s right at the top at the moment,” Hijikata said.

“I’m sure he is going to go higher but seeing the way he goes about it and being able to see that one of us can get that far gives me a lot of confidence and motivation to work hard to get to that point.”

The pair have grown up together, de Minaur seeing his progression up close and heaping praise on the up-and-comer after his second match at the Kooyong Classic against Andy Murray on Thursday.

“He’s a great kid, we’ve hit a lot together and I’ll always have a lot of time for him, I’ve tried to give him a bit of advice here and there, he asks me from time to time how to play certain types of players and I’ll always answer his phone call for sure,” de Minaur said.

“It’s great what he’s been able to accomplish – even going to college for a couple of years and really becoming more of a professional (and) maturing. 

“You can see in his level, his matches, the wins he’s getting, he’s the type of player that is growing into his own skin so I think we’re going to see a lot out of him for sure.”

In his second Kooyong Classic match against 116-ranked Chinese Yibing Wu, Hijikata went down an early break in the first set, then dropped his serve at 4-4 in the second to go down in straight sets. In the final game of the match, Wu got up 30-0 and had Hijikata on the defence in the next two gruelling points, but the Aussie found a way to win them both. While he ultimately lost the game – and therefore the match – those points were telling of his moxie.

In a tournament that means nothing, he ran side to side, stretched and bounced on a hot Melbourne afternoon in the name of competitiveness and match practice.

To quote Hijikata, so far, he has certainly shown he is one that goes about it the right way.

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