Washington: American former tennis star-turned-coach Michael Chang said Monday that his physical similarities and shared Asian heritage with Japanese tennis sensation Kei Nishikori have contributed to the success of their mentor-student partnership.
Nishikori`s career is on the rise following his star turn at the US open, where he defeated world number one Novak Djokovic to become the first Asian man to make a Grand Slam singles final.
Though he was crushed in the title match by Croatia`s Marin Cilic in straight sets, his strong showing vaulted Nishikori to a career-high eighth in the world.
"I think we have a lot of similarities which made it easier for me to decide to work with him," Chang said on the sidelines off the Malaysian Open, where Nishikori is the clear favourite to win in his first appearance on the court since his US breakthrough.
Chang`s 175-cm (5-foot-9-inch) stature is similar to Nishikori`s 178 cm, and both are know for their speed on the court.
"If he was 6`10", it would be difficult to teach him some of the things that I`ve learnt on court. Kei has a great set of wheels, covers the court very quickly," Chang, a Grand Slam champion at the 1989 French Open, told reporters.
The success of their partnership so far has raised hopes of a first Grand Slam win by an Asian male -- Chang is ethnic Chinese but an American citizen -- and a resulting boost to the Asian game similar to just-retired Chinese star Li Na`s ground-breaking women`s win at Roland Garros in 2011.
"Coming from an Asian heritage, there`s a similarity there as well. These have helped our relationship and also his game," Chang said.
"I think it`s a unique situation. If you look at the history of men`s tennis, there haven`t been that many successful Asian players."
Nishikori in turn credited Chang`s tutelage for his changing fortunes, and said his sights were now on breaking into the world top five.
The 24-year-old has won two titles and reached two runner-up finishes since Chang, 42, joined with Nishikori`s long-term handler Dante Bottini last December.
"We have been working together for nine months already, and you can see that my rankings and results are much better than last year," Nishikori said.
"I am now in the top 10 and the next goal would be to break into the top five and win a Grand Slam."
Nishikori is the highest-ranked player in the Malaysian Open, which kicked off main-draw play on Monday.
Malaysian organisers have said ticket sales for the $1.02 million men`s tournament have surged well past last year`s levels, citing the excitement surrounding the emerging Asian star.