Being a tennis player is grueling. There’s the constant struggle for ascension and the constant threat of injury. When a player does get injured, the road to comeback is often very steep. It’s filled with self-doubt and a consistent loss in confidence. But the persistent ones make it back to where they belonged prior to the injury. Kei Nishikori had struggled a lot in his journey as a top-flight tennis player. And his run at this year’s US Open has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Kei Nishikori pushing himself to the limits
Before the start of the US Open, not many fans and pundits gave Nishikori a chance to reach the semifinals with a stacked quarter. Finding himself up against an uphill task of getting past Marin Cilic and Alexander Zverev, it was unlikely that Nishikori would reach the semifinal. As it turned out, Zverev lost early, again. And in an epic quarterfinal against Marin Cilic, Nishikori played out of his skin to avenge his US Open final loss from four years ago. He was down a set and a break but he managed to grind out a win, courtesy his unnerving groundstroke skills and incredible court coverage.
To be practical, he isn’t a trendsetter when it comes to fitness. He isn’t the supreme athlete, in the way Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic is. They will engage in physically tiring rallies for four hours straight and then come back just as fresh in the next round. Nishikori may be able to do it, but with him, there’s always doubt hovering around. His biggest concern has always been fitness. Worsening physical fitness and subsequent lack of stamina during the later stages at Grand Slams and Masters tournaments are often seen as his achilles’ geel. That’s where Nishikori has surprised possibly the entire tennis community. At one of the hottest US Opens ever, he’s one of the last four men standing, fighting through a grueling 5-setter against Cilic. He felt the heat, but never let it get to him. He’s pushed himself to the limits these two weeks, and so far he has held his own.
The Novak Djokovic dilemma
He’s beaten each of Del Potro, Nadal and Djokovic twice. But, it’s the Serb that has troubled him the most. Nishikori’s two wins came in 2011 and 2014, with the latter being a US Open semifinal. Since then, Djokovic beat Nishikori in 13 consecutive matches, three of those wins coming this year. Figuring out a way to get through and break Djokovic’s defense is a tough ask for most male tennis players. It’s one of the most difficult for Kei Nishikori as well. Ever since the US Open win, he’s failed to break the code. Despite trying several times, Nishikori’s attempts have always resulted in a defeat – sometimes hard-fought, sometimes a clean kill.
Quite the contrary to their H2H history, Djokovic will not be the heavy favorite when they take on each other. Nishikori will have a fair chance of scoring another upset like he did in 2014. Djokovic looked a little too fatigued in his quarterfinal match against John Millman which led to a drop in quality. If that’s anything to go by, Nishikori will be happy to take on Djokovic on a surface where he’s defeated him in the past. But, if the roof is closed when they are playing, extreme heat won’t be as much of a cause for concern. In that case, Nishikori will need his shotmaking ability and tennis I.Q. to win it for him.
Since breaking onto the men’s circuit at a tender age of 18, Kei Nishikori has seen countless ups and downs in his career. Injuries spoiled his career a great deal in the past. But it’s his fight against injuries that probably keeps the fire burning. From being a promising kid from Japan back in 2008 to becoming Japan’s greatest player ever, that fight is not over yet. He’s still only 28 and surely has a lot more to give to tennis. He’ll be more than willing to make a name for himself before he hangs up his rackets. Fighting through fitness concerns, he’s once again reached a Grand Slam semifinal. But, for him, it’s just a part of the process that is starting to gain ground. Because, for Kei Nishikori, the comeback’s only just begun.