Tokyo Calympian: Ben McLachlan, Tennis, Japan
The Cal alum will pair with Kei Nishikori as one of 32 pairs in men's doubles
With international travel still restricted due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the smaller Tokyo Olympic crowds will be almost all Japanese natives. Today, our featured Calympian is one that should get a big piece of that home-country love, the 1st-time Japanese Olympian Ben McLachlan.
Event: Men’s Doubles
Hometown: Queenstown, New Zealand (but his mother is Japanese)
Olympic Appearance: 1st
Age: 29 (May 10, 1992)
Cal connection: Alumnus (‘14)
Cal accomplishments: A 4-year starter from 2011 to 2014, Ben McLachlan ascended to be Cal’s No.1 singles player in his sophomore season. Cal Men’s Tennis made the NCAA post-season all 4 years, and Ben qualified for the NCAA Singles Championship his sophomore through senior seasons.
Since graduation from Cal, Ben McLachlan has found success on the ATP Tour as a doubles player. Although he does not have a set partner, McLachlan is currently ranked 48th in doubles. He has won 6 ATP doubles titles and made a run to the 2018 Australian Open semifinal in his best Grand Slam outing. In 2019, when he won three ATP titles and made three other ATP finals within the past year, Ben McLachlan earned a doubles ranking as high as 18th in the world.
"We're incredibly excited and proud of Ben to be playing in the Olympics in Tokyo," said Peter Wright, Cal's Director of Men's Tennis. "He's been an amazing representative of our team on the pro tour, and he's had some of his best moments on the biggest stage in tennis – the Grand Slams. Playing in the Olympics and being a Cal Olympian are two of the things he dreamed of during his time on the Cal tennis team."
McLachlan will be competing in his first Olympics, with men's tennis kicking off on July 24 and men's doubles concluding with the medal matches on July 30 at Ariake Tennis Park in Tokyo. He is coached by former Cal assistant coach Lan Bale and by his brother and fellow Cal men's tennis alum, Riki McLachlan.
Japan's Olympic tennis team includes men's player Yoshihito Nishioka and women's players Naomi Osaka, Misaki Doi, Ena Shibahara – an occasional mixed doubles partner of McLachlan's – and Shuko Aoyama.
With the host Japan guaranteed Olympic berths, McLachlan will be paired with Kei Nishikori in the men’s doubles draw. Tennis fans know Nishikori from his 2014 US Open finalist run. Nishikori also won the Bronze in Rio 2016 when he defeated Rafael Nadal in the Bronze medal match. 2021 will be Nishikori’s 4th Olympic games.
Ben McLachlan has played with Nishikori in two ATP tournaments. The pair did not have much success in 2018 on the grass court of Halle, losing in the opening round. They played again in Rotterdam this year back in March, where they pushed the 3rd seed in the opening round to a third-set tiebreaker (first to 10 points) before losing. The two might have some more experiences playing together in the Davis Cup.
Note that in the Olympics, doubles will include a normal 3rd set, with a tie-breaker only for 6-6.
On the Cal team, Ben McLachlan overlapped with his older brother Riki. Riki has since turned to coach tennis. The McLachlans were raised in New Zealand. Ben even played under the New Zealand flag early in his pro career before making the switch to Japan, the native country of his mother Yuriko.
The New York Times had a nice article on Ben McLachlan ahead of the 2018 French Open. The article detailed how the McLachlan family found former Cal Men’s Tennis assistant coach Lan Bale after Bale moved to New Zealand. That process led the twoo McLachlan brothers to Berkeley eventually.
Ben McLachlan’s emergence dovetailed with his switch to represent Japan, where his mother, Yuriko, was born.
Over five months, beginning last September, McLachlan represented Japan in the Davis Cup, won the first ATP tournament he ever contested — in Tokyo — and advanced to the semifinals of the Australian Open, his first Grand Slam event.
McLachlan began 2017 ranked 200th in doubles, and found himself at a career-high 25th entering the French Open despite not having a regular partner.
The timing for McLachlan and Japanese tennis is especially good, with the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
“It’s been a big confidence booster for me to go out and be able to play all these tour events now,” McLachlan, 26, said. “It’s been huge. The tournaments are awesome. They’re all new for me. I want to keep the good results going.”
Bale’s association with the brothers endures. He did not initially ponder pro careers for them. Progressing regionally and nationally and earning university scholarships were more pressing targets.
With the latter in mind, Bale made his own call to Berkeley to the longtime head of tennis at Cal, Peter Wright.
“I said, ‘I have these two boys for you, Coach,’ ” Bale said. “He said, ‘How old?’ I said 12 and 13, and we both had a really good laugh because there’s no way you could tell at 12 and 13 they could be at that level.”
The McLachlans did attend the university on scholarships and even played doubles together, posting a 17-11 record. Riki ultimately ruled out a playing career, saying he was not good enough.
The New York Times article also included quotes from Nishikori about a partnership with McLachlan.
McLachlan’s switch, which became official last June, was welcomed by the Japanese star Kei Nishikori, Asia’s first Grand Slam men’s singles finalist.
“I was very happy he was going to play for Japan and especially for Davis Cup,” Nishikori said. “I think it helps a lot because he’s a great doubles player, and we don’t have much doubles players in my team.”
McLachlan did not have to wait long to be selected in a high-profile Davis Cup series, earning a berth in September for the World Group playoff against Brazil in Osaka.
Nishikori said he would like to partner with McLachlan in the future, adding that McLachlan has “great serves, great volleys” and “great talent for doubles.”
Since Nishikori does not have that much doubles experience, it is hard to predict how well this pairing will fare in the Olympics.
I am also not certain if Japan will have an entry in the 16-team mixed double field. As they likely do have one, I think the more experienced pairing of Ben McLachlan and Ena Shibahara might make sense, although it would be quite fun to see Ben McLachlan paired with Naomi Osaka.
Best of luck to Ben McLachlan and Kei Nishikori in Tokyo!
Men’s Tennis Schedule
July 24 - July 30 at Ariake Tennis Park in Tokyo
The Doubles tournament will consist of 32 pairs in a single-elimination format; so the Gold medalists will need to win 5 matches. The two semifinal losers will play for the Bronze.
Men’s Doubles 1st Round - July 24/25
Men’s Doubles 2nd Round - July 26
Men’s Doubles Quarterfinals - July 27
Men’s Doubles Semifinals - July 28
Men’s Doubles Gold Medal Match - July 30