For a player who enjoyed significant breakthroughs in his first full year touring, the biggest lesson Rinky Hijikata learnt during 2022 might sound a surprise to some.
The Sydneysider took a set off Rafael Nadal at the US Open, claimed a maiden win on the ATP Tour in Mexico and secured his first title on the ATP Challenger Tour in October.
But as valuable as those experiences were, the world No. 166 said the lessons learnt from losing were critically important as he looks to launch from a solid platform next season.
As a highly-ranked junior in Australia and high-class competitor in college ranks in the United States, the 21-year-old won far more frequently than he lost prior to turning professional.
But unless you are Novak Djokovic or Iga Swiatek, regular losses are part and parcel of being a professional player and it is critical to learn how to process those results, he said.
“As a player, you are pretty much going to lose every week and as a competitive person, it is not easy to lose. You never want to lose,” Hijikata told The First Serve.
“When you are kind of a big fish in a small pond, it is easy to rack up a lot of wins and you are never really losing early in weeks.
“But when you are stepping up levels and the competition gets stronger, you are going to be losing most weeks and there are going to be stretches where you go first round, first round.
“It is not easy but I think the biggest thing is that if you stay motivated and don’t let it put you off track, then a good result can be literally right around the corner.
“The best tennis players put their losses behind them and move on to the next week and don’t let it affect their performances or snowball. If you start letting it affect you, and it lingers
for a couple of weeks, that is when it starts to spiral.
“Tennis is a funny sport. You see guys on ten match losing streaks, then they win a couple of tournaments and it ends up being a pretty good six month period. You always have to be optimistic. You always have to be looking ahead. So it is about staying positive and not taking the losses too hard.”
Having recently finished his season in Japan, the nation where his parents Makoto and Junko are from, Hijikata is looking forward to preparing for the next Australian summer.
He has established himself as a leading contender for a wildcard into the 2023 Australian Open after jumping more than 200 spots in the rankings over the past 12 months.
A beauty of being based in Sydney through December is the access he has to top-class Australian players who are now his peers on the professional circuit.
“All the New South Wales players have always looked after me when I am in Sydney and inspired me to get better,” he said.
“The de Minaurs. The Thompsons. (Chris) O’Connell. (Aleks) Vukic. The Duck (James Duckworth). (Max) Purcell. All these guys. We all push each other to get better.
“Then you have the guys like (John) Millman, who messaged me after I won Playford. We were travelling together and hitting a bunch. He always brings that intensity he is well-known for.
“It is cool having so many people around that have walked the path that you are trying to. I’m pretty lucky in that regard.”
Just over three months ago, Hijikata experienced the thrill of his fledgling career when stepping on to centre court at the US Open against Rafael Nadal.
There is a lesson to be learnt from each tennis match. But the experience of taking on the 22-time major champion at the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre felt akin to finishing a degree.
Hijikata described it as an exhilarating yet surreal experience from the moment he landed in New York to news that he would be playing Nadal.
When sitting in his New York hotel room eating pizza hours after his 4-6 6-2 6-3 6-3 loss to Nadal in late August, the Australian said he did not really know how to feel.
On one hand, he had taken a set off a legendary rival who was unbeaten at grand slam level in 2022 through to that stage. But Hijikata is a competitor. And competitors hate losing.
The Sydneysider felt that if he had managed to hold his concentration at the start of the second set against Nadal, he might have done even better.
There was plenty to ponder as the street lights flicked past on the 30-minute drive home along the Long Island Expressway and through the midtown tunnel on to Manhattan.
“It was a pretty mixed bag of emotions. I mean, I was actually a little disappointed,” he said.
“Especially after the position I was in, I felt like I could have … maybe done a little bit better after the first set and maybe I took my foot off the gas a little bit.
“Looking back, I think there are things I could have done a little bit better, but that is always easy to say in hindsight.
“But, on the flip side, I had everyone there telling me what a great job I’d done. I don’t know. It didn’t really feel real at that moment.
“Like, even when the whole time I was playing the match, just after that I couldn’t come to terms with it, that it was kind of reality.”
The Sydneysider played all the junior grand slams. Attending the University of North Carolina, he earned All American honours in singles.
After claiming a maiden ATP Tour victory at a tournament in Los Cabos in early August after qualifying, he performed well against former world No. 1 Daniil Medvedev.
But nothing can prepare a player completely for the experience of walking out on to Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first time in front of 24,000 fans there to watch an all-time legend.
The first game he played against Nadal scarcely settled his nerves. As Hikijata said; “I walked out there and went return error, return error, return error, ace.”
“So I didn’t even hit a ball in in the first game. That was definitely a bit of a worry,” he said.
But Hijikata felt comfortable with his preparation. The match against Medvedev demonstrated to him that he could stay with the best. He planned accordingly.
“I just tried to get a feel for the match really, tried to get some sort of grip on the match, tried to get my teeth into it a little bit, really,” he said.
“I just wanted to find the middle of the strings and try to build points. I think all the matches I had played in the past held me in good stead for a moment like that.
“I’ve always tried to back myself, to believe in my ability and the work I have put in, so I felt like once I got into the match, it all became a lot easier.”
The 21-year-old has no doubt the experience proved critical to his ability to break through for a maiden ATP Challenger title in South Australia in late October.
He defeated compatriots the calibre of James Duckworth and Max Purcell on the way to the final before thrashing Japan’s Rio Noguchi 6-1 6-1 in the decider.
“I think the Nadal match was just huge because it showed me I am not that far off at the moment,” he said.
“I was pleased to get back to the Challenger level and win that event and try to do it week after week and really back myself.
“The Playford title was really because the first one is always the toughest. Once you win one, they start to come a little bit easier because you have been in that position before.
“That definitely helped my confidence. Knowing I can close out those weeks is huge, because the difference between making a semifinal and winning a title is massive.
“Just knowing you are not that far off the top 100, of getting direct acceptance at slams, that you just need another couple of good weeks, it just gave me a lot of belief, I think.”
Life is a series of lessons and Hijikata has no doubt that he made the right move in heading to the US to attend the University of North Carolina after graduating from high school.
Hijikata studied Business Administration at Chapel Hill and said his mother had stressed the importance of having a back-up if tennis did not work out the way he hopes it will.
“But ever since I was really young, (a career in tennis is) all I ever wanted. I never really saw myself doing anything else to be honest,” he said.
“For a little while there, when I was younger, I struggled with injuries and whatnot and college kind of became the clear path for me. Everyone has their own road, and for me, I felt like that was definitely the best option.
“UNC gave me an unbelievable base to get better and grow as a player and a person and when I thought the time was right, which was after two years for me, I told my coaches … I think I've got some good momentum behind me and I really feel like I can go out and make a run.
“That's when I decided to leave school and turn pro. It's been a great decision for me. And it's been a pretty, pretty busy year this year.”
The right-hander, who played 31 tournaments this season, is excited about what lays ahead.
“I’m 21 but I feel like I am definitely young in terms of tennis. This is only my first full year on tour and I feel like I am very new to this. It is very exciting,” he said.
“There is a long road ahead, but I feel like I have had a solid year that gives me a foundation for next year and I am really wanting to see how far I can go, really push it.
“If that means I can come up with a lot of the other Aussie guys of my age, then that is great. Just being able to push each other is really inspiring and I am hoping we can all improve and make that push together.”