As an insight into the competitiveness of Rinky Hijikata, the fretful hours following his thrilling debut performance on Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York last August are illuminating. Pitted against four-time champion Rafael Nadal, the Australian started with an audacity that astounded the 24,000 fans expecting to see a legend waltz to a win against a wildcard.
The 22-time major winner ultimately gained the upper hand, but as Hijikata contemplated the defeat over a pizza later that night, he was far from satisfied. It had been an experience to savour given his inexperience. But this did not temper his regret. Hijikata felt he had let the Spanish legend off the hook.
“Looking back at it, there are things I think I could have done a little bit better,” he said. “That is easy to say in hindsight, but I think maybe I took my foot off the gas a little bit.”
Hijikata, who will make his first appearance in a third round at a grand slam against China’s Zhizen Zhang on Friday, tries to learn a lesson from every experience. The losses he endured in his maiden season in 2022 have helped him strengthen his game and regardless of how he fares against Zhang, who upset 2022 US Open finalist Casper Ruud on Wednesday, the 22-year-old will break into the top 100 for the first time in his career.
The computer does not lie, for his relentless quality when thrashing 2021 Wimbledon quarter-finalist Marton Fucsovics 6-1, 6-2, 6-1 on Wednesday was the mark of a top-tier talent.
The right-hander stands 1.78m, which is short by tour standards. But his legs have the thickness of tree trunks and were developed courtesy of a “lot of hard yakka”. Hijikata attributes this to a killer summer in the gym at the end of last year when he realised he needed extra strength to thrive and take a step forward in his fledgling career.
The benefits were immediate. Hijikata won his first grand slam match in Melbourne and partnered Jason Kubler to win the Australian Open doubles crown. The swiftness of his court coverage was a feature against Fucsovics at Flushing Meadows. Be it zipping between the corners or sneaking forward for an attack at the net, his speed surprised his rival.
“There were some dark times … when you are in the gym and getting flogged but when you get through matches like these … it makes it all worthwhile,” he said.
The importance of lessons was drummed into him as a boy growing up in Sydney. His father, Makoto, who hails from Tokyo, is a tennis coach. His mother, Junko, is from Kobe. The 22-year-old speaks with a broad Australian accent and has Davis Cup aspirations. But prior to this year’s Australian Open, he said he had great respect for his family’s heritage.
“Japan is almost like a second home to me. I love the culture. I love the food and everything. And I can kind of speak the language,” he said.
Hijikata was promising enough to travel to junior grand slams as a teenager. But tennis is littered with junior stars who failed to make the transition to professional ranks. His mother always stressed the importance of education and having a profession to fall back on, which precipitated a move to the University of North Carolina in 2019.
Hijikata has no doubt the two years he spent studying a business degree at Chapel Hill, where he earned All American honours while on a tennis scholarship, helped make him. A network of friends boosted his confidence. And the discipline required to juggle studying with the training and playing demands of a collegiate player helped him mature.
“My goal was always to become a professional tennis player,” he said. “Ever since I was really young, that’s all I ever wanted. I never really saw myself doing anything else, to be honest. But for a little while there … I struggled with injuries and whatnot and college kind of became the clear path for me.”
Shortly after his opening round win on Monday, he learned a UNC faculty member had been killed in a shooting that sent Chapel Hill into a lockdown lasting several hours. Hijikata was there last week preparing for the US Open and his girlfriend and several close friends still attend the university. The news rocked him. But it also motivated him.
In his match on Court 7 on Wednesday, alma mater from the Tar Heels were urging Hijikata on as enthusiastically as those wearing the green and gold and waving Southern Cross flags.
Chapel Hill was his undergraduate college, but a finishing school in Sydney helped round the rough edges off Hijikata as he embarked on his professional dream.
“All the New South Wales players have always looked after me when I am in Sydney and inspired me to get better,” he said. “The De Minaurs. The Thompsons. [Chris] O’Connell. [Aleks] Vukic. The Duck [James Duckworth]. [Max] Purcell. All these guys. We all push each other to get better.”
The youngest member is through to a third round in New York. Alex de Minaur, who is the leader of the pack, and O’Connell will bid to join him on Thursday in New York.