Inside the Hijikata Experience: Roaring Rinky | TBEN | Tennis

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Rinky Hijikata remembers his early days watching tennis, supporting compatriot Lleyton Hewitt. The former world number 1 was known for his determination and tenacity.

“I’d pump my fist in the backyard and sign his signature, come on. I think he was a huge inspiration to me,” Hijikata told ATPTour.com. “I’m trying to implement a little bit of that fight into my own game and hopefully I can, even though I’m half the player he was, that would be a great career.”

When Hijikata was young, he used to pick up balls for his siblings Shori and Kamiyu, who used to play. His father was a coach.

“I had a racket in my hand all the time and would have a little hit during their drinking breaks,” Hijikata said. “And then I just loved it from the moment I picked up the racket and it hasn’t stopped since.”

It’s safe to say that Hewitt’s determination has rubbed off on the 21-year-old. Perhaps more than any player in the field during the first round of action, Hijikata used the crowd to his advantage.

Call it the ‘Hijikata experience’.

The Australian’s hopes of securing his first Grand Slam win in the main draw seemed slim in Melbourne Park on Monday evening. Germany’s Yannick Hanfmann led their clash two sets to love and earned a break point at 3-3 in the third set.

But with the support of the Court 8 crowd, Hijikata came to life. More and more often he directed the audience with his racket to build the atmosphere. By the fifth set, Hijikata was the star of a show, not just a tennis match.

Rinky Hijikata takes hard-fought five-set win at 2023 Australian Open.” />
Hijikata takes a hard-fought five-set win at the 2023 Australian Open. Credit: Mackenzie Sweetnam/Getty Images

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“For me it’s just fun to compete,” Hijikata said. “It’s nice to feel pressured and really have your back against the wall and see what you’re good at.

“That’s why I practiced the sport. Because I like competitions. I love seeing how far I can push myself. When you play at home and you have an audience like that, everything just gets 10 times better.”

Hijikata’s tennis answers didn’t work against Hanfmann. Although the audience couldn’t play for him, the fans were able to energize and help him raise his level.

“I was just trying to find some hope in the game,” said the Australian. “And the crowd really started to get me going and I just tried to ride that wave as long as I could and just go out swinging if I was going to lose.”

Hijikata admitted that he had nerves entering the match. But with his back against the wall, the home favorite unlocked his competitive spirit and with it some of his best tennis.

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“I think I was two sets down to praise and break points and in my head I think, ‘I’m probably not going to win this match anyway,'” Hijikata said. “I think I’ll probably be off the field in 15 minutes if I keep playing the way I’m playing right now. So I might as well go down swinging and try to play my game the best I can and try to get a lot more aggressive than I was on that moment was.

Hijikata is used to playing in raw atmospheres. The Australian competed as a student-athlete at the University of North Carolina for two seasons, with his last game for the school in 2021.

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“College tennis really prepares you for competitions like this and in huge atmospheres,” said Hijikata. “You play your home games in front of a packed crowd and everyone is really behind you and then you play away when everyone kind of chirps you and sticks to you.

“You have to be a really good player under pressure in college. And I think I’ve grown a lot in my two years there. I’m so thankful to my coaches in North Carolina for giving me a chance there and making sure that I have improved as much as I have.

His former teammates praise his energy. William Blumberg, one of the Top 100 players in the Pepperstone ATP Doubles Rankings, said he had the most energy on the team.

<a href=Rinky Hijikata pumps up the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium.” />
Hijikata pumps up the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Credit: Sarah Stier/Getty Images

“He used to scream non-stop during matches and wake everyone up, so I think those environments and those moments are better and more beneficial for him. He always feeds off the energy and never shy away from a big moment,” said Blumberg. he told me, there’s a video of David Goggins that he loves and it was like, ‘You’re tired, lick your lips!’ He’s definitely intense and he loves the big moments. He likes to be tough and he thrives on it, so those moments and staying tough are set up for him to succeed.

Alexa Graham, a member of the UNC women’s team while Hijikata competed at Chapel Hill, explained that even in difficult moments, the team trusted the Australian to find a way to turn a game around.

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“I’ve seen Rinky play a lot of games and no matter how many times it seemed like he was going to have a tough game or maybe not even win, me and my teammates always knew he was going to win,” said Graham. “He was always like that” one point no matter where he played and all he needed was one point to turn the momentum against his opponent, get the crowd excited and finally clinch a routine win.

“He was so talented and such a hard worker and this is just the beginning for him and his professional career.”

The next stop in the ‘Hijikata Experience’ will be one of the biggest stages in all of tennis. The number 169 in the world will play third seed Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday evening. After winning a set against Rafael Nadal at the US Open last year, the Australian will have no fear when he takes on the Greek.

“I can’t wait. It’s the same when I said I played Daniil [Medvedev in Los Cabos] and the same thing I said when I played Rafa. I am very excited. I’m not going to avoid these matches,” Hijikata said. “These are the ones you dream of playing when you’re a kid and why you work so hard.

“I’m going to come out and try to play my game. I’m going to leave no stone unturned. That’s for sure. I’m going to go out and give it a huge bang.

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