Japan has produced a number of exciting young tennis players down the years, yet only two have won Grand Slam titles at junior level. The first was Kazuko Sawamatsu, who triumphed at the French Open and Wimbledon in 1969. Half a century later, Shintaro Mochizuki became the second, taking home the 2019 boys’ singles trophy at Wimbledon. It was the then 16-year-old’s first time to play at the prestigious tournament and only his second Grand Slam. He defeated Spain’s Carlos Gimeno Valero 6-3, 6-2 in the final on Court One and subsequently joined an illustrious list of winners that includes Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg and Roger Federer.
He didn’t need to be worried. As with this interview, Mochizuki handled the questions as well as he handled the serves from Valero. A mature young man who’s been playing tennis since the age of 3, he appears to be growing in confidence all the time.
“I first went abroad when I was 11 for a trial at the IMG Academy,” recalls Mochizuki. “I was there for two weeks, but couldn’t speak English at that point. I don’t think I could even understand ‘how old are you’? Coaches assisted me when they could, but it was scary when they weren’t there to help.”
Despite his trepidations, things went well for Mochizuki during his trip to the States. He impressed with his performances and subsequently received a scholarship from the Morita Tennis Fund, which was set up to enable promising junior players to train abroad.
The youngster then started taking English lessons at Jack&Betty English School in his hometown of Kawasaki before flying to Florida to enroll at the IMG Academy at age 13. “My English had improved, but it was still daunting taking classes in America,” admits Mochizuki.
“When studying languages in Japan, the focus tends to be on reading and writing, whereas I think it’s more important to try to speak to as many people as you can. I was reluctant at first but it became easier as my confidence grew.”
Another challenge Mochizuki had to face during his early days in America was his lack of physical strength. Other players at IMG Academy were taller, bigger and more powerful. He lost nearly all of his matches early on, but that didn’t leave him disheartened. Instead, it made him more determined to succeed.
“I tried to hit my forehands and backhands harder,” he says. “It didn’t work because the other players were too powerful. My coach noticed that I did well when coming to the net and volleying. To succeed I would have to start outsmarting opponents. Kei Nishikori, who I train with sometimes, also emphasized the importance of playing to my strengths.”
The change in style had the desired effect. At 16, he was ready to play in his first junior Grand Slam. Remarkably, he made it to the semifinals of last year’s French Open, where he lost to close friend Toby Kodat.
“My objective was just to get past the first round,” says Mochizuki. “I was surprised to make it so far. It was a great experience and gave me a lot of confidence for Wimbledon, the competition I most enjoyed watching growing up.”
A few months after his triumph at the All England Club, Mochizuki received an invitation from Roger Federer to be his practice partner at the ATP Finals at London’s O2 Arena. “Federer’s always been my hero so that was very special,” says Mochizuki.
“The first practice session took place the day I flew into London, which was terrifying. It was before one of his games so he went easy on me. Another time I trained with Rafael Nadal. That was on his day off so he was hitting the balls really hard.”
In the long term, Mochizuki hopes to emulate players like Federer and Nadal by becoming No. 1 in the world. In the short term, he wants to win Challenger and Futures tournaments, which are usually for players ranked outside the top 100. The cancellation of several tournaments due to the COVID-19 pandemic has held him back, but the 17-year-old is now raring to go again. (Matthew Hernon)
Words to live by