Twenty-five years ago today, Pokémon Red and Green—the very first entries in what would eventually become the highest-grossing media franchise in history—were released. Exactly five months earlier, Yoshihito Nishioka was born.
While too young to be an early adopter of the franchise, but still old enough to see it transform into an international phenomenon, Nishioka sees Pokémon as way to connect with friends close by and—more commonly right now, far away.
Yoshi, as Nishioka often goes by, “used to play the video games,” he says, but now probably owns “a few thousand” Pokémon cards, including a few that, if he “sold one card, it’s going to be very expensive.” He occasionally shares his haul on Twitter and Instagram, in between clips of playing golf and going fishing with friends.
Yoshi initially started collecting cards three years ago to have something fun to do with his friends, but found that no one else really played the game. Now, he “[wants] to make a community.” Perhaps he will find it in tennis, as players who grew up with the Pokémon franchise age into the primes of their professional careers.
Nick Kyrgios (also born within a year of Pokémon’s debut) considered dropping tennis for Pokémon Go back in 2016. That same year, Naomi Osaka said her goal in tennis was “to be the very best, like no one ever was.” (She might very well be on her way.) Fellow Japanese star Kei Nishikori is himself a fan of Pokémon, sharing in 2018 he was playing Pokémon: Let’s Go, and brought his Nintendo Switch with him on tour. And age didn’t stop Roger Federer from wearing a Uniqlo x Pokémon shirt at Wimbledon in 2019.
Just quietly, how good is Pokemon Go. Honestly been playing that more than tennis ????????????— Nicholas Kyrgios (@NickKyrgios) July 24, 2016
In 2007, for the first time, players of the Pokémon video games were able to interact virtually across the planet after Nintendo added Wi-Fi connectivity to the games. Two years later, Nishioka would attend the IMG Academy with a similar goal, “[wanting] to talk to players who were the same age...to make friends. [He wanted] to know about their culture and to tell them about Japanese culture.”
Playing his dues and playing better Nishioka attained another goal in 2014, turning pro. (In between, the Pokémon Trading Card Game Online was launched, allowing one of the most successful collectible card games of all time to be played online, from anywhere on the globe.) He's currently ranked 61st in the world, and reached a career-high ranking of No. 48 last year.
As we celebrate the cultural influence Pokémon has had over its 25-year run (be sure to watch our interview with Nishioka above), Nishioka hopes to be the latest in a line of Japanese players to score a significant breakthrough on tour. If Nishikori isn’t able to return to the form that once brought him close to the top of men’s tennis, maybe it’ll be Yoshi who emulates “[his] hero,” Marcelo Ríos, another shorter-than-average lefty who would reach No. 1 in the ATP rankings.
After scoring a win over Nishikori in 2019, Yoshi said, “in Japanese tennis, the only famous players are Kei and Naomi. I want to change that.”
Until that day comes, Happy Pokémon Day!
Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.
To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).