Rinky Hijikata had just landed in New York Thursday when the messages started lighting up his phone.
“The first one was from my manager, Kelly [Wolf], and she said something along the lines of ‘Welcome to the Big House!’” Hijikata told ATPTour.com. “There was no real context, so I really didn’t know what she was talking about. I thought maybe she was saying ‘Welcome to New York’.
“I got a few others like ‘I can’t believe your draw!’ so that’s when I went and had a look. Pretty exciting.”
When he called up the US Open draw he found his name on Line 127, one above second seed and 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal. The context was no longer lacking.
Hijikata could not have asked for a more illustrious opponent for his Grand Slam main draw debut, and the 21-year-old wild card eagerly awaits the moment when he steps on court alongside Nadal in New York on Tuesday.
“It’s not often you get to play a player of that calibre and I’m definitely pumped,” said Hijikata. “I can’t wait to go out there and give it my best shot.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to go out there on the biggest stages of tennis and try to have a big crack at players like that. I’m excited for the contest, I’m excited for the challenge. I want to go out there and represent everyone and try and give it my best shot.”
It is not the first time this season Hijikata has been thrown in at the deep end. In Los Cabos earlier this month, his reward for notching his maiden ATP Tour win was a second-round clash against World No. 1 Daniil Medvedev. The Australian was not overawed by the occasion despite falling to a 6-4, 6-3 defeat in Mexico, and he believes that experience will help him as he plots an upset against the four-time champion Nadal in New York.
“That was probably one of the biggest matches I’ve ever played,” said Hijikata. “That was a great experience for me, I think I learned a lot from that. The atmosphere and everything was a bit different than anything I’ve ever played in. Hopefully that will help me in good stead for what’s coming on Tuesday.
“I guess all the good players have a bit of an aura around them maybe and once you step out on-court, you don’t really know what to expect the first time. So, I went in a little clueless, but this time around hopefully I can settle the nerves a bit quicker.”
Born in Sydney after his parents emigrated from Japan, Hijikata grew up watching arguably the greatest generation of players the ATP Tour has ever seen. Yet while the likes of Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic were obvious inspirations for the 21-year-old, it was a legendary home favourite who had him most captivated as a youngster.
“I think ‘Rusty’ (Lleyton Hewitt) was the guy I loved watching the most,” said Hijikata. “He’s an Aussie and the way he competed on the court, I thought was pretty cool.
“Then as I got a little bit older, I think Rafa and Roger when they had their big rivalry going that was pretty special. That was hard to beat, playing each other pretty much every Slam and the quality of their tennis was out of this world. Those two of mine have been idols of mine growing up and then obviously Novak as well, a bit more recently has been on a tear.”
Hijikata has so far trodden a slightly different path to those ATP Tour greats. He played two seasons in college tennis for the University of North Carolina before turning pro in 2021, but the Australian only ever had one final destination in mind.
“I definitely went over with the intentions of playing tennis after,” said Hijikata. “That was always my goal. That was one of my main reasons I chose North Carolina, I thought it would give me the best platform to get better and grow as a player and a person and hopefully hold me in good stead for the Tour and I think that’s exactly what it did. Those two years definitely helped me a lot.”
After qualifying for his first ATP Tour appearance at the ATP 250 event in Melbourne in January, Hijikata has worked his way up to his current career-high of No. 198 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings thanks to some strong performances at ATP Challenger Tour and Futures level. His next mission is to add greater consistency to his game.
“I think it’s been a little bit of an up-and-down season,” said Hijikata. “It’s my first full year on Tour so there’s a lot of learning that I’ve got to do, I think that’s been the story of the year.
“There’s been some really good patches and then there’s been some patches where I’ve been struggling a bit, but I guess that’s kind of life on Tour, you’re not going to be able to win and play well every week so it’s kind of just dealing with the losses and dealing with the weeks where you aren’t doing so well.
“I think that’s been one of the main things I’ve learned this year; not every week is going to be pretty, if you string a few good weeks together then it ends up being a pretty good year.”
There may be plenty of lessons left to learn, but Hijikata has no shortage of role models to learn from as he finds his way on Tour. Fellow Australian John Millman in particular has been a source of sage advice for the youngster.
“He’s always been a big one,” said Hijikata of World No. 104 Millman. “He came and chatted when we were on the Junior Davis Cup team and he just said that you’re never going to be able to play at a level if you don’t believe that you belong there.
“That’s something that I’ve taken to heart, and I guess every level that I step up, I try to back the work you’ve put in and all the hard work you’ve done in your training. Hope that puts you in good stead and have the belief that you deserve your spot here and you do deserve to be there. I think it’s easy to get swept away with guys’ rankings, their achievements. Stepping up levels, it can be tough.”
Relatively straightforward yet effective advice from Millman, and Hijikata is taking the same approach as he prepares for the biggest match of his career against Nadal. “Try not to drop anything too short and in the middle of the court,” said the Australian of his gameplan for taking on the second seed. “That’s a good start.”