By Pritha Sarkar
PARIS, Nov 3 (Reuters) - His mere presence causes hysteria and pandemonium in the Land of the Rising Sun and he has no tennis equal in a continent heaving with 4.427 billion inhabitants, yet self-effacing Kei Nishikori thinks he is simply "one" of the best players in Japan.
One of the best? More like 'the best'.
For a continent that has failed to produce a single male grand slam champion in decades of trying, Nishikori now finds himself as the torch bearer of Asian tennis.
A debut appearance for an Asian man in a grand slam final -- at the U.S. Open in September -- has only served to whet his appetite for glory rather than satisfy it.
Following his remarkable run to the Flushing Meadows showpiece, he is the first Asian to make it into the elite eight-man season finale that will be staged on the banks of London's River Thames.
"I might get nervous first time but I'll try to play my best tennis and try not to think too much of it being the Tour Finals," Nishikori told Reuters in an interview in the run up to the O2 spectacular.
"Beating Novak (Djokovic) at the U.S. Open, it was a great experience and gave me a lot of confidence. So for sure I know I have a chance to beat the top players, so if I can play good, I have some chance to win some matches."
While tennis has produced some brash and loud characters over the years, Nishikori prefers to create a racket with his racquet.
Never had the hullabaloo been louder than at the U.S. Open when he beat fifth seed Milos Raonic in a five-set stamina-busting thriller.
Surely he would have nothing left to give in his quarter-final against Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka?
Five lung-burning sets later, Wawrinka was the one left out of puff.
Surely Djokovic would swiftly bring him back down to earth in the semi-finals?
Nishikori was floating on cloud nine after four gripping sets against the world number one.
PROJECT GRAND SLAM
While Marin Cilic finally silenced Nishikori in the title match, it was not long before the man tagged as 'Project 45' at the start of his career had now turned his focus on completing 'Project Grand Slam'.
"I was really disappointed I couldn't play good tennis in the final because I was playing really well for two weeks and then in the last match I couldn't," said Nishikori, who had been given the goal of surpassing Japan's previous high of 46 in the men's rankings when he moved to the Nick Bolletieri academy in Florida as a teenager.
"But I got a little bit tight in the final.
"To win a slam I need a little bit more of everything. I need a little bit more experience, you have to be ready mentally to play seven best-of-five-set matches, that's not easy. My body has to be a little more stronger to try and play couple of five sets in two weeks.
"I won't say next year but hopefully I can make a grand slam final again in the next couple of years and win it."
Planning his career path as a carefully-routed marathon, rather than a 100 metre sprint to the finishing line, has served the 24-year-old well and he is in no rush to change his ways because of his latest success.
While Kei-mania has swept across Japan, with stores struggling to keep up with demand for his signature tennis shirts, rackets and shoes, those in regular touch with Nishikori said he has not let all the fuss go to his head and is still the same grounded person he was five years ago.
Nishikori put his results this year, when he also achieved the highest ever ranking by an Asian man by rising to sixth in the world, down to having "realistic" rather than "unrealistic" goals set by his mentors.
The first of those was to surpass Japan's previous best men's player, Shuzo Matsuoka's ranking of 46.
"Having that as my first goal was great for my career. It's not easy to aim for Top 10 when you are 18, so it was a great goal for me. It took some time to get there, but I'm very proud that I'm now one of the best players in Japan," Nishikori said rather shyly before admitting he could no longer walk the streets of Japan anonymously.
"A lot of people in Japan now recognise me, even in the U.S. some people recognise me - I never had that before. It's a great feeling. Feel like I'm famous! It's not like I want to be famous but it's a great motivation for me. If you have good attention, you feel more excited."
The recent retirement of China's Li Na, the first Asian woman to win a grand slam singles title, means Nishikori is now the leading light in Asian tennis -- with no other active player ranked in the Top 20 of the men's or women's standings.
"It was very sad to see her retire because what she's done was amazing for Asian tennis," Nishikori added.
"Also for me, I got a lot of confidence from seeing her play great tennis and winning grand slams. Hopefully I will be in her position soon. Hopefully there will be more Asian players coming up and I can give them confidence as well."
The Barclays ATP World Tour Finals will be held at The O2 from Nov 9-16. (Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Clare Lovell)