Photograph: Getty Images
If you’re looking for a player to follow in 2022, look no further than the American born, Spanish speaking, Japanese National Taro Daniel.
The 28-year-old has kicked off his season in fine form, winning his way through Australian Open qualifying and into the third round of the main draw, accounting for former world No. 1 and three-time major winner Andy Murray in straight sets in the second round.
His form is so impressive, it’s beginning to be noticed by his fellow players, including Australia’s Nick Kyrgios.
”I saw Nick Kyrgios because he finished his match pretty close to mine. He congratulated me. I’ve never really talked to Nick that much before so that was really nice of him to come up to me and say that,” Daniel told The First Serve’s Jedd Zetzer and Alex Johnstone.
”There’s been a lot of people that have been congratulating me but it’s also a challenge to manage that energy because it’s a lot. But it’s been a lot of fun to receive that.”
The result came as a shock to some in the tennis world, but for Daniel, it was due reward for a process he had begun around the time of the 2021 US Open.
Daniel has always had the ability to beat players of Murray’s calibre, with his 2018 victory over Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells a prime example. However, the current world No. 120 hasn’t been able to do it on a consistent basis, prompting him to search for a new edge to help him evolve as a player.
Enter Australian data analyst Shane Liyanage from Data Driven Sports Analytics.
Daniel found himself coachless towards the back end of 2021 but through old connections, he met with Liyanage and fellow Australian high-performance coach Marc Sophoulis. Their meeting and subsequent partnership has opened a whole new avenue for the third-ranked Japanese male.
“I started working with them a few months ago, around the time of the US Open,” Daniel said.
“Data is something I’ve never worked with before, it’s a very tricky subject because sometimes data can be too much for a player to digest.
“In the beginning, I struggled with it because I used to be a guy who avoided studying my opponents to keep it within myself. But, I felt like it was a necessary step for me to evolve as a player and also just to keep my interest in the game.
“To be able to study the opponent and then see what I need to do within the match, that’s the most important thing.”
Tennis is a sport that has always been at the forefront of data and statistics; not that Daniel was any the wiser before his partnership with Liyanage.
“I didn’t even know these things existed until like eight months ago, you know.”
If Daniel’s recent results are anything to go by then he may have wished to stumble upon the world of data and statistics sooner.
With Liyanage by his side, Daniel became the first player to take a set off Italian Jannik Sinner in 2022; claiming the second set 6-1 in their third-round encounter at the Australian Open.
Daniel didn’t quite get the win, but he played at a level that suggests he’ll certainly be able to compete with and beat players of Sinner’s calibre in 2022.
Daniel’s start to the season has been mightily impressive and should fill him with confidence for the season, not that he’s buying into the word, though.
“Confidence is a word that I’m starting to be careful to use,” Daniel said.
“Confidence is something that I try not to link to the results I’m getting. Instead, it’s more about if I’m doing the right things and if I’m enjoying the things that I’m doing right, then confidence will come from within.
“It’s something that is always there, even if you’re not winning or if you’re winning, you know. It’s more about being able to keep going and enjoying the journey than anything else.”
Winning certainly helps with the notion of enjoying the journey, something Daniel hopes will continue throughout the year. For now, he hopes to keep building on the foundation he’s laid in Melbourne.
“This is kind of the level that I would like to produce while I keep building on this [current] level. But, it’s more of like, a state of mind than the actual tennis in my opinion.
“Being able to improvise in certain situations or being able to see what the other guy is struggling with and what he’s doing well. Those are the little nuances, like being able to pick up on those things are very important. So, If I can keep kind of building on that then I’ll have great chances throughout the year but we’ll see.
“The year is long and there’ll be ups and downs, that’s a guarantee always - even if it’s a good year.”
At his current ranking - being just outside the top 100, it is difficult for Daniel to plan his year ahead as he sits beyond the direct entry list for grand slams and other ATP Tour tournaments. But like most challenges he faces, Daniel is taking this one in his stride - choosing to enjoy and embrace the journey.
“It’s actually probably the most difficult ranking in order to plan ahead because you’re always in this borderline of making a slam main draw, being in the qualies and it’s the same with the 250s and the 500s,” Daniel explained.
“So yeah, I mean, hopefully, I can start having more results like this and not have to worry about it but you know, that’s also part of the journey and I enjoy being a nomad and kind of acting last minute,” Daniel exclaimed.
The nomadic life is nothing new to Daniel, who has been travelling the globe since he was young.
The world No. 120 was born in New York to his Japanese mother, Yasue, and his American father, Paul. At a young age, the Daniel family packed up shop and moved to Yasue’s native Japan.
It was there where Daniel found his love for the game of tennis; hitting the clay courts of Saitama with his father Paul who played collegiate tennis in his younger days.
At the age of 14, Daniel and his family hit the road again, this time to sun-soaked Spain in order to further his tennis career. Despite discovering the game in Japan, Spain is where Daniel associates himself with tennis.
“Whenever I’m on court, Spanish comes out,” Daniel said.
“Spanish is a great language for tennis because when you demand something of yourself, you can say it in a way that’s not disrespectful, but strong. It’s very difficult to do that in Japanese.
“Spanish has a good expression for doing certain things so I do identify my tennis with Spain.”
Spain is where Daniel associates his tennis, but where does this young nomad call home you may ask?
“I think for different things I’m comfortable in different places. For friends and social life I have more fun in Japan,” Daniel said.
“But for family, my parents live in California, where my dad’s from in Santa Cruz so that’s where I feel probably the most grounded. My cousins are there, my uncle, my aunt and that’s kind of a place I really connect with as well.
“I feel like that’s maybe more of my souls home you know, but I also train in Florida, that’s where my official residence is now.”
One thing that stands out about Daniel is his sense of self. After years of toiling away on the tour, Daniel has learnt to enjoy every moment that he‘s presented with instead of piling pressure on himself. It’s this mantra, among other things, that has contributed to his recent fortunes.
“I think I’m trying to enjoy whatever I’m doing right now instead of looking forward to things you know, it’s not all about the result,” Daniel explained.
“I’m trying to connect with myself, know myself better so that I know what I want to do and what I need to do in order to improve.
“Then just having better connections with my team and just having a connection with everything is where it’s at.”
One thing is for sure; Daniel’s newest connection with Liyanage is one worth fostering even further in 2022.
And if the early signs are anything to go by, we’ll be seeing a lot more success for the American born, Spanish speaking, Japanese national.