While the major focus of Australian tennis fans has been on the Special K’s, Ash’s retirement, the M&M’s winning Wimbledon, and Ajla Tomljanovic’s grasscourt form, one Aussie has quietly been going about his business and has rocketed to a career-high ranking during his first full year on tour.
Twenty-one-year-old Australian Rinky Hijikata is, at the time of writing, the latest debutant into the world’s top 200 in the 'live' ATP Rankings which are updated after each match.
The Sydneysider turned college athlete started the 2022 calendar year ranked 375 after improving from 778 in the latter half of 2022 once the US college season had finished, and has since continued his upwards trajectory to gate crash the top 200.
Hijikata’s career-high ranking was secured after his first ATP Tour level main draw win over Mexican Rodrigo Pacheco Mendez in the first round of the Los Cabos Open in Mexico. After successfully qualifying, Hijikata soundly led Mendez 6-3 4-0 before his younger opponent retired.
As a reward for his efforts, Hijikata earns 29 points, rises from 224 in the rankings to 199 (live), and will face world number 1 Daniil Medvedev in the round of 16 on Thursday.
Remarkably, Hijikata was due back at college this year and was no guarantee to play the full 2022 season.
A loyal University of North Carolina student, Hijikata earned All-American honours in the 2021-22 season with a formidable 14-2 record and was set to participate in his senior year for the Tar Heels before ultimately deciding to jump onto the tour full-time.
Speaking to The First Serve after winning his first-round qualifying win at the Australian Open, Hijikata said:
“At the moment it’s kind of up in the air. I was planning on going back before the summer, but I guess I’ll kind of re-evaluate at the end of the tournament.
“Either I’ll go back and play the season at UNC or I’ll [hit the tour full-time] and play as much as I can and try and play grand slam qualifiers throughout the year.”
After an Australian summer that included a maiden ATP main draw appearance and first top 100 win, it was no surprise that Hijikata turned his efforts to the pro tour. It was evident that Hijikata belonged at the top echelon in men’s tennis and for the first time he started to believe it himself.
“I feel really comfortable at the level now. Maybe the last few years I’ve been coming out here and maybe it’s a bit more of a step up from the level I was playing at…but this time round I feel really comfortable, I feel like I’ve put in the work.
“Being able to do my pre-season in Sydney with guys like [Jordan Thompson, Aleksander Vukic, Alex de Minaur, Chris O’Connell, Max Purcell, and James McCabe] that was really good for me. You can see us all kind of really pushing each other to get better.”
Alongside his Sydney-based pre-season training camp, Hijikata felt that his three years in the US College system had him primed to embrace life in the pressure cooker environment that is the pro tour.
“I think you can see that with a lot of the college players, they love the big moment and they love playing with a crowd. It’s kind of what you’re used to because every match you play at college, especially with a school like UNC, like, if you’re playing away you’re going to have a lot of people kind of coming after you, heckling you a little bit. So if you’re not going to be able to play under pressure then you’re going to struggle big time in college.
“It’s been massive for me, I’ve kind of had to learn how to deal with the pressure and kind of play in the environment like that. So when I come to a [tour level tournament] I feel very comfortable. I think it’s a massive thing in college. I’ve definitely worked a lot on my mental side and I’ve learned a lot.”
Since his career-altering summer, Hijikata has gone from strength to strength. Having played a mix of ITF Futures, Challenger, and Tour level events, Hijikata’s season has been jam-packed and includes back-to-back ITF Titles in March, consistent match wins at Challenger level, oh so nearly qualifying for Wimbledon (Hijikata led one-set-all and 5-1 in the final round of qualifying before going down in four tight sets), and now his first win on the ATP tour.
Helpfully, the devoted former UNC player remains able to utilise his former stomping ground as a home away from home throughout the season. A luxury that many Australians wish they had.
However, one cannot question Hijikata’s love for his alma mater as the New South Welshman wrote “Go Heels” on the camera lens immediately after his breakthrough win on Tuesday morning (AEST).
And as for his signature rolled-up-sleeves look, Hijikata sheepishly suggested that was simply a matter of old habits dying hard.
“I’ve got no idea. I started doing it when I was young. I don’t like sweating or wearing sweaty clothes… It doesn’t feel great when my sleeves are sweaty or sticking to my arms... I know it looks ridiculous… but it’s the one way I’ve always dealt with it. ”