As the sun emerged from behind the afternoon clouds, the roof of the newly-renovated Ariake Coliseum in eastern Tokyo opened over a packed stadium of excited tennis fans, eager to catch the final of the biggest event in Japanese tennis—the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships (Rakuten Open).
Rakuten’s presence in the world of international soccer and basketball has reached new heights with the recent Rakuten Cup and NBA Japan Games, but Rakuten’s history with Japan’s only ATP 500 tennis event goes back over a decade. A former competitive tennis player himself, Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani partnered with the Japan Open in 2009, and the tournament hasn’t looked back.
Champions of the last decade have included tennis legends Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and, naturally, local favorite Kei Nishikori, whose two victories have inspired countless young players to pick up a racket and try their hand at the sport.
This year, the tournament was a return to form for Serbian superstar Novak Djokovic, who breezed through the week without dropping a set. The world No. 1 had just defeated Belgian David Goffin in the semi-final to secure his place in the decider.
Facing Djokovic was an unlikely opponent: Australian qualifier John Millman. The current world No. 80 had faced a much rockier path to the final, surviving three match points in the first round to eventually battle his way past 6’11” American Reilly Opelka to reach the final. To the casual observer, the contest was shaping up to be rather one-sided.
But Millman had no intention of lying down for Djokovic—some exciting net plays had the stadium oohing and aahing through a tense first set. Nevertheless, it was Djokovic who caught the first break, defending it against a determined Millman to take the opening set.
The world No. 1 gained control in the second set to run away with the first four games, eventually prevailing 6-3, 6-2.
Djokovic was in good spirits following the match, sending the crowd wild with a short greeting in Japanese before praising his Australian opponent’s fighting spirit. “This is the first time I’ve participated in the Rakuten Open, and it has been an amazing week—not just on the court but also off the court,” he told the crowd, which included Empress of Japan Masako and CEO Mickey Mikitani. “We spent an amazing 10 days in Japan, and I can’t wait to be back next year, hopefully, for the Olympic Games.”
A festival of tennis in Tokyo
Despite the local favorites having been eliminated from the singles competition, Japanese fans did have reason to celebrate thanks to a dominant performance from world no. 1 wheelchair tennis sensation Shingo Kunieda, who prevailed 6-0, 6-2 over Swedish rival Stefan Olsson in the final.
French fans in attendance were also in a fine mood after compatriots Nicolas Mahut and Edouard Roger-Vasselin defeated Croatian duo Nikola Mektic and Franko Skugor 7-6(7), 6-4 in the doubles final.
Outside the Coliseum, the Ariake Tennis Park was in festival mode, with lines of gourmet food trucks, live viewing areas, interactive activities, and even a wheelchair tennis experience. A stall for fans wishing a speedy recovery for Japanese tennis superstar Kei Nishikori had a line snaking through the park.
As title sponsor of the event, Rakuten had some of its most cutting-edge technology on display, with Rakuten Mobile treating fans to a VR tennis viewing experience broadcasted live over 5G from inside the Coliseum. An AR application courtesy of the Rakuten Institute of Technology also allowed fans to look over the recent history of the 46-year event through their smartphone screens.
In his post-match remarks, singles runner-up Millman echoed the sentiments of the many jovial tennis enthusiasts happy to be back in Ariake. “It’s been a really fun week. Thanks for coming along for the ride with me.”