Japanese qualifier Yoshihito Nishioka broke through for his maiden ATP singles title Sunday, outlasting seasoned Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 in a grueling final of the Shenzhen Open.
"This is the dream for tennis players," said Nishioka afterwards. "I believe this is the beginning."
The 23-year-old Nishioka, ranked 171 in the world, in the end played seven matches in eight days at the Shenzhen Longgang Sports Centre but his legs were full of running in a marathon final as he threw himself at everything Herbert could give.
As the match clock ticked towards two-and-a-half hours, Nishioka sealed the victory on his fifth match point – and looked as though he could hardly believe what had just happened.
Twelve months ago, the Japanese player was stuck at home pondering his future after tearing an ACL. He will now return to the world's top 100 after that injury had seen his ranking plummet to as low as 362.
"It was a very long run to get here, seven matches," said Nishioka. "It's not easy. I'm very tired right now. I think my strength is my mentality and stamina and [I] never give up. That's my weapon."
The 27-year-old Herbert was never going to leave the southern Chinese city wondering, rattling off 12 aces and helping his opponent's cause with nine double faults and he poured on the power. But the Nishioka game plan –- waiting out the barrages and keeping his opponent moving –- worked a treat.
Both players came into the final unfancied and unseeded and both had yet to claim a ATP Tour singles title. Herbert had only made one final previously (losing in straight sets to South African Kevin Anderson at the Winston-Salem Open in the US in 2015) while Nishioka had never before graced the big stage.
Before the final, Nishioka had put his run of form –- kick-started by title at the ATP Challenger Tour stop in Gimcheon, South Korea, four months ago –- down to a change in attitude.
The 1.7-metre (five-foot-seven) Nishioka revealed he had previously been trying to play like "six footers" such as current world number one Rafael Nadal of Spain but had turned instead for inspiration to Chile’s former world number one Marcelo Rios, who stands around 1.75 metres (five-foot-nine).
"I think I'm the shortest player in the ATP tour," said Nishioka. "It's very tough. I need to play many long rallies. I have to run a lot."
It looked like he'd picked up some of Rios' tenacity, too, fighting his way back to victory having dropped seven straight games after leading Herbert 7-5, 2-0.
"I was a little bit nervous because I almost won the trophy," said Nishioka. I was a little bit tight and a little bit nervous. But after I lost [the] second set, I changed my mentality."
The odds were stacked in favour of Herbert, a three-time Grand Slam doubles title winner with partner and compatriot Nicolas Mahut who has vowed to focus more on singles in the near future, outside those Major tournaments. But Nishioka finally fulfilled the promise he had shown as one of Japan's top juniors.