One pertinent piece of advice from Roger Federer sticks with #NextGenATP teenager Shintaro Mochizuki whenever he takes the court at this week’s Miami Open presented by Itau. On Tuesday, the Japanese 17-year-old defied a 486-place gap in the FedEx ATP Rankings to book his appearance in his maiden ATP Masters 1000 main draw.
The World No. 654 took down Ecuadorian Emilo Gomez 6-1, 6-2 in the final round of qualifying to set a first-round showdown with fellow qualifier Thanasi Kokkinakis. It was a career-best win for the former junior World No. 1, made all the more impressive given he required a wild card just to enter qualifying.
His idol, Federer, was so impressed by Mochizuki’s run to the 2019 junior Wimbledon title that he asked the young Japanese player to be his hitting partner at the Nitto ATP Finals later that year. That is where his belief that he belonged was solidified.
“He’s my hero. At the Nitto ATP Finals, I was there as a hitting partner and I got to hit with him,” Mochizuki said. “It was a dream. In tennis he hits so easy, just relaxed when he’s playing.
“Many people are just playing with the power and emotions, but he’s just hitting balls so easy. He taught me that if you have any chances to play bigger events, just go for it.
“Even this tournament, I had a wild card. I’m still like No. 600, I’m not even close to getting into qualies and I had a chance to play, so I just came to play.”
The teenager, who hails from Kawasaki, Japan, made his ATP Tour debut only last month at the Singapore Tennis Open, where he made a swift exit at the first hurdle against Turkey’s Altug Celikbilek. While not the debut he had hoped for, it went a long way to helping his qualifying campaign in Miami.
“Actually, [it helped] a lot because that was my first ATP tournament of my life and I was so nervous and I couldn’t even play my tennis, especially in the first set,” he said. “But this is my second tournament, and I’m getting used to it. I’m enjoying playing on the tour.”
Besides Federer, Mochizuki has understandably idolised his countryman, Kei Nishikori. Much like the most decorated Japanese male player before him, his tennis journey shares a couple of parallels.
“I came from Japan when I was 12, 13 years old. I came to the IMG Academy and started training,” Mochizuki said. “It was fun playing with people from other countries. It’s different to just playing in Japan.”
Mochizuki added that from time he has spent practising with the former top five star, he has learned how much of a “chilled person” Nishikori is.
“He of course works hard, but he talks to me a lot during breaks,” Mochizuki said. “In a real match watching him on TV, he’s so serious, focused and everything. On and off he’s so good at it.”
One of Nishikori’s coaches is former doubles World No. 1 Max Mirnyi, who is also a product of the IMG Academy. The Belarusian finds the young Japanese player’s game intriguing, and it reminds him of retired French star Fabrice Santoro.
“Fabrice is a player who really utilised the power of the oncoming ball to him and also was very crafty with his hands,” Mirnyi said. “Just like Fabrice was fun to watch, Shintaro is one of them.
“He sees the court extremely in a different dimension. He uses the angles well, cuts them off well and likes to come into the net. He takes the ball early and he’s got good feel with his hands.”
Off the court, Mirnyi had plenty of nice things to say about Mochizuki.
“He’s a very friendly, outgoing guy off the court and doesn’t take anything for granted,” Mirnyi said. “I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him.”
Mochizuki said he spoke no English when he first moved to train in the US and while he attended school at the academy, other Japanese players on site helped him adjust. Outside the grind of school and training, however, another great passion has helped him throughout.
“On weekends I play baseball with my friends at the academy,” he said. “I still love playing it and watching it. I’m not trying to be a professional baseball player, though, just for fun.”