Kei Nishikori is LastWordOnTennis’s pick for this week’s player to watch.
Every week, LastWordOnTennis will highlight a player to keep an eye on as tournaments are played around the world. This week’s selection is Kei Nishikori.
Nishikori is competing in the Rotterdam ATP 500 in a highly competitive field, with half of the players ranked within the top 40 in the world. The current world #45’s ranking could be deceptive, however. Here are the reasons why Nishikori’s comeback efforts this week could be enthralling.
First Top-20 win in two years
The standout reason is his first-round victory in Rotterdam. He defeated world #19 and seventh seed Felix Auger-Aliassime in straight sets on Monday in emphatic fashion, taking the second set 6-1. Nishikori was at his level-headed best as he hit only eight unforced errors throughout the match. His backhand deserves particular mention as it coughed up only two unforced errors.
The last time Nishikori beat a top 20 player was in the 2019 Brisbane final against then-world #16, Daniil Medvedev. He had been on a six-match losing streak against top 20 players before his victory in Rotterdam.
It is no surprise that the courts of Rotterdam suit Nishikori’s game so well. His highest winning percentage is technically on clay but separating his indoor wins from his outdoors wins on hard-court actually suggest Nishikori’s favourite surface is indoor hard-court. He sports a 69.8% win-rate on the surface, sixth-best among his rivals. If he is going to play his best anywhere, it should be here in Rotterdam.
Everybody loves a comeback
In his heyday, Nishikori was one of the best players on tour. He has finished the year in the top 10 of the rankings four times in his career, made 12 Grand Slam quarterfinals and the 2014 US Open final, made four Masters finals and won the bronze medal at the Olympic Games in 2016.
It is therefore saddening to see such a great player win only three matches in the last two years as injury has stunted his level of play. He had surgery on his right elbow in 2019, suffered a shoulder injury at last year’s French Open and tested positive for COVID-19 a couple of times, to name a few of the setbacks he has faced.
Fans all over the world will have their fingers tightly crossed for Nishikori to continue the form he showed in his last match and overcome these great challenges.
Nishikori has been close to his best for a while
Nishikori’s win against Auger-Aliassime is unlikely to be a flash in the pan. Despite not having been in winning form for a while, Nishikori’s level has not been too far removed from his best.
The differences between winning and losing at the highest level are minute and he has shown this in some of his losses this year. In his straight-sets loss to Pablo Carreno Busta, Nishikori stated he was not displeased with his form in his post-match interview.
“I thought I was playing well… I played one of the best tennis [matches] so far including last year after coming back. I was kinda happy with this level.”
Even in his losses to top 10 players Diego Schwartzman and Daniil Medvedev at this year’s ATP Cup, there were encouraging signs. All of his aggressive traits were working well, particularly on the return, which he was frequently taking inside the baseline. He was just not solid enough in keeping his error count down–his match against Auger-Aliassime suggests he has made the necessary adjustments.
This Week’s Player To Watch
Kei Nishikori is now up against Alex De Minaur, another young gun on the tour that will test his mettle. Age is not a factor just yet for Nishikori though–after defeating Auger-Aliassime, he had to keep his on-court interviewer in check, stating “I don’t feel like I’m old.” The 31-year-old has life in him yet and will give everything he can against De Minaur.
Tune in to their match this Wednesday for extended rallies, pinpoint backhands and some excellent returns of serve from the Japanese star. He could be just solid enough to make it through–who knows how far he could go if he wins.
Main Photo from Getty.