Kei Nishikori believes his strong showing at the ATP Tour Finals will provide the perfect springboard to win his first Grand Slam crown next year.
Nishikori enjoyed a breakthrough campaign in 2014 as the Japanese star reached his maiden Grand Slam final at the US Open and became the first Asian singles player to qualify for the prestigious season-ending Tour Finals after climbing to fifth in the world rankings. (Also read: Federer survives thriller to earn Djokovic clash)
The 24-year-old, beaten by Marin Cilic in the final in New York, used the Tour Finals spotlight to prove once again he can compete with the very best as he made the semi-finals thanks to wins over Andy Murray and David Ferrer.
Although his campaign ended with a 6-1, 3-6, 6-0 defeat against Novak Djokovic in the last four on Saturday, even that was an encouraging experience for Nishikori, who was closer to victory than the scoreline suggested after becoming the first player to take a set off the world number one since October.
Now Nishikori will embark on a rigorous off-season training schedule motivated by the growing belief he can make a significant challenge for the first major of 2015 at the Australian Open in January.
"It was one of the best years for me. For sure I have to do well this off-season. I have to train well and be injury-free again," Nishikori said.
"I think I will have a lot of chance in the big tournaments, especially Grand Slams. Hopefully I can come back to a final again.
"I love to play the Australian Open, so hopefully I can have good start of the year there."
- Amazing consistency -
Nishikori's rise to his career-high top five including winning four ATP titles in six final appearances.
Now he has set his sights on emulating the consistency of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who have all set up camp at the top of the rankings for a decade or more.
"It's really amazing. Novak, Rafa, Roger, they win Grand Slams a couple of times a year," Nishikori said.
"I had so much stress and pressure in US Open playing seven matches. I can't imagine how they handle the pressure and everything through the whole year.
"It's not like I can make it to Grand Slam semi-finals and finals easily. It's no promise.
"I need a little more experience to get there. But I think also you get more motivation when you get a higher ranking."
Although Nishikori knows he isn't quite at the level of the big three just yet, he is confident matches like Saturday's against Djokovic show he isn't far away.
"For sure it's really tough to play these three players. They are very consistent from the baseline," he added.
"Like you saw today, even though he lost the second set, he was still focused. He knows what he has to do to win.
"For sure they have a little more experience. It's always tough to play them.
"But I think I'm getting really close. I beat Roger this year and also Novak. It's not like I can't beat them."