Nishikori comeback balances risk and reward

The 34-year-old reached the Roland-Garros quarter-finals in 2015, 2017 and 2019

Kei Nishikori, first round, Roland-Garros 2024©️Nicolas Gouhier / FFT
 - Alex Sharp

Three years since his last appearance, Kei Nishikori is back in Paris. 

The former world No.4 has endured a well-documented struggle with a multitude of injuries since his last Roland-Garros campaign in 2021.

Left hip surgery in 2022 sidelined him for the whole season, he only played four tournaments last year and this season he's only featured in one encounter, a defeat, in Miami in March.

Despite all these struggles, the Japanese stalwart's competitive spirit still burns.

"Of course, I've had a lot of injuries, but I've never felt like I've finished," he said. "I've never lost the motivation to come back."

Nishikori's Grand Slam return simply had to go the distance.

In his first major match since the 2021 US Open, Nishikori prevailed past qualifier Gabriel Diallo in a four-hour 7-5, 7-6(3), 3-6, 1-6, 7-5 marathon on Sunday night.

As a result, the 34-year-old moved to 28-7 in career five-set matches. His 80 per cent win ratio is the best among active players on the tour, just pipping Adrian Mannarino and Novak Djokovic (both 78 percent). 

His desire and commitment cannot be questioned.

"Winning is one thing, but I'm most happy that I've somehow gotten back to playing," the current world No.350 said. "It was big for me that my body could take a match like that.

"In Miami, I couldn't do anything and was nervous, but it was my first game in a long time, so I couldn't do anything, I couldn't attack, I didn't have much sense, so I couldn't hit as hard as I could.

"It's been a long time since I last played, it was five sets, so my fitness wasn't quite ready. Although I didn’t play that well, I didn't feel like I was going to make that many mistakes. This gives me a lot of confidence, it's already better than Miami."

Kei Nishikori Roland-Garros 2024©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

Another injury setback sidelined Nishikori after Miami, and he's been understandably cautious over his return. However, the allure of major tennis was too strong for a player who has reached the quarter-finals of at least all four Grand Slams.

A few rounds would really boost the ranking.

"Deciding to play Grand Slams was risky, because it's five sets, but the reason I wanted to play this tournament is that I really like Paris and the courts here," added Nishikori. "Also in a Grand Slam, it's a high risk for me, but maybe I can get a high return too."

Big name hits have also enhanced the 34-year-old's belief that he's on the right track.

Before heading to Paris, Nishikori practised with Alex de Minaur in Monte-Carlo. Last week in Paris he hit with Jannik Sinner and Sebastian Korda. 

"Playing with these top guys made me feel like I can play at this level again. I was surprised by how quickly I managed to adjust to their levels," said the 2014 US Open finalist. "Let's see how it goes."

His next knock with a 'top guy' is a second-round blockbuster with No.15 seed Ben Shelton. Either way, it’s a pleasure to see this talent back within the confines of a Grand Slam court.