2 September 2023 | Tennis Australia

With abundant talent and a name like “Rinky”, said a smiling Casey Dellacqua, 22-year-old Sydneysider Rinky Hijikata has long been destined for tennis celebrity.

“Everyone is a fan of Rinky, aren’t they?” the Australian former professional told The AO Podcast earlier this week. “I mean, I love his name – I feel like he was just born to be a superstar, with the name Rinky Hijikata.”

And who could disagree as he constructs a career-best Grand Slam campaign at Flushing Meadows?

With US Open wins this week over higher-ranked opponents Pavel Kotov, Marton Fucsovics and Zhang Zhizhen, Hijikata has stepped firmly into the spotlight in only his third appearance in a singles main draw at a major.

“I wouldn’t have picked it at the start of the week,” Hijikata admitted. “But I put a lot of hard work in. I’ve always strived for these types of results and I’ve always felt that I am capable of having runs in these tournaments.”

A year previously, Hijikata signalled the breakthrough performance with a sensational debut at Arthur Ashe Stadium. As a world No.198 wildcard, he extended four-time champion Rafael Nadal to four electrifying sets before an absorbed New York crowd.

Hijikata vowed to draw on that experience in New York this week.

“Obviously Rafa played too good for me, but I’m looking forward to going back and soaking up the atmosphere again,” he told tennis.com.au.

“It’s a great tournament to be a part of and hopefully this year I can get a couple of wins.”

> READ: Hijikata storms into fourth round at  US Open 2023       

Entering the US Open at a peak No.110 singles ranking, Hijikata has arguably exceeded those expectations with a trio of headline-grabbing wins.

His first-round match against Kotov extended four hours, while the best of the Australian’s talent was on show as he limited Marton Fucsovics, a Wimbledon quarterfinalist two years ago, to only four games in the second round.

Hijikata navigated a potential comeback against Zhang – an upset winner of 2022 men’s finalist Casper Ruud in his previous match – to set a fourth-round meeting with world No.10 Frances Tiafoe.

The fourth-round match is almost certain to be contested on a Flushing Meadows stadium court, providing Hijikata with another opportunity to shine on a big stage.

Earlier this year, he memorably teamed with countryman and close friend Jason Kubler at the Australian Open to lift a first major trophy in men’s doubles. Dellacqua points to the milestone victory as a significant stepping-stone in Hijikata’s current success.

“When you’ve had that type of experience at the beginning of the year, winning a major – whether it be in singles or doubles, or in whatever form, I just think those are the type of things that give you such confidence,” Dellacqua said.

Alongside that confidence, a fiercely disciplined Hijkata is reaping the benefits of relentless hard work. At 178 centimetres, he’s dwarfed by mostly taller tour-mates but invested countless hours in the gym to build his strength.

Firing 55 winners – including 13 aces – against Zhang, Hijikata showed that any deficit in firepower is balanced by his increasingly potent groundstrokes. So too is a steely on-court determination that can at times seem at odds with his typically smiling demeanour off-court.

There was a more sobering serious side when Hijikata learned of a fatal shooting at the University of North Carolina – where he built a successful college career and where his girlfriend and many friends still study – after his first US Open match.

“Obviously it was tough news,” he commented following his career-best win over Fucsovics.

“I’ve still got a lot of mates and everyone back home in college in Chapel Hill, so I just wanted to kind of represent them well today. So maybe If there’s some people there watching today, maybe it’s a little bit of a positive for a tough week.”

The candid and emotional response shows the depth of character that has a growing number of fans keen to learn more about Hijikata, the son of Japanese immigrants Makoto and Junko.

While Tokyo-born father Makoto is a coach who helped channel Rinky’s passion for tennis since his earliest experience of it (which he says was in his backyard at age three or four), his Kobe-born mother Junko stressed the value of education too.

It factored in Sydney-born Hijikata’s pathway as a scholarship recipient in the US college system, which he credits as a priceless period in his overall development.

“I think it was huge in shaping me as a player and as a person,” he recently commented to ATPTour.com. “I felt like I really matured in my two years there. I learned how to deal with a lot of different things.”

> READ: Hijikata excited for US Open return 

The next chapter for Hijikata is as a top-100 player, with entry into that echelon guaranteed after his progress to the US Open’s second week.

“It was a big goal of mine at the start of this year and I’m really happy that I’ve hopefully ticked that off,” the current world No.110 smiled as contemplated the likely debut earlier this week. “Hopefully I can keep climbing forward.”

Dellacqua is among the growing number of supporters who believe it’s only the beginning for the talented young star.

“He’s 22 years of age; I feel like a lot of the men kind of hit their stride at 23, 24,” she said. “I feel like the best years are to come, and right ahead of Rinky.”

Book online, play today: Visit play.tennis.com.au to get out on court and have some fun!