Lleyton Hewitt says Kei Nishikori is developing into a serious contender at grand slams as the Japanese No.1 men’s player bids to emulate China’s Li Na by becoming an Asian major winner.
The Australian, who will share the stage with China’s Li at next month’s Hong Kong exhibition event, said world No.16 Nishikori stood the strongest chance of becoming the first Asian-born male singles slam champion.
Former world No.1 Hewitt fought past 24-year-old Nishikori in three sets on the way to winning last month’s Brisbane International, and the 32-year-old said the Japanese star had stepped it up.
Nishikori, coached by 1989 French Open winner Michael Chang, also pushed top seed Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open fourth round in one of his best grand slam performances.
“In terms of the Asian guys, obviously it’s led by Nishikori at the moment and he has a very good chance in the future of being a contender at the grand slams,” Hewitt told a teleconference on Tuesday.
“I think he’s really stepped it up in the last year or so, over five sets in the majors. So he’s probably the best chance (of a slam win), I would say, at the moment. He plays really well on all surfaces as well.”
Hewitt will play Czech world No.7 Tomas Berdych in Hong Kong, while Li – fresh from winning her second grand slam title at Melbourne Park, will take on Australian 2011 US Open winner Samantha Stosur.
He was full of praise for the “fantastic” Li.
“It will be massive,” Hewitt said of the exhibition event at the new Hong Kong Velodrome. “She’s such a big name in Asia now and in Asian sport in general.
“It’s been fantastic, what she’s done. She deserved to win the Australian Open; she’s been runner-up a couple of times there in the past.
“It’s good for the tournament, especially back in Australia, knowing how hard they’ve worked to turn that into the Australasian grand slam as well.
“That was an important time that Li Na won this year. I think it was important for the tournament but also for the tennis in that region.”
The world No.3′s win came at the start of a year in which her home city Wuhan will host a major new tournament and Singapore will hold the end-of-season WTA Championships.