by Matt Zemek
There is no rule stating that tennis players have to go to the Challenger Tour, tennis’s version of the minor leagues, when returning to competition after an extended layoff.
Plenty of ATP stars have been injured in recent years — they didn’t play Challenger events when coming back to the court.
Kei Nishikori wants the challenge of the Challenger Tour.
After an Australian Open in which player autonomy became a central topic of the tournament, it’s fitting that one of the more prominent names in men’s tennis is structuring a comeback in a highly individual way. Others wouldn’t go to Dallas or Newport Beach to play in the minors, but the Japanese professional had a plan… and so far, he likes what he sees:
The decision by Nishikori to step away from the regular ATP Tour for several months might have seemed obvious, but as Dominic Thiem’s overscheduling reminds us, the obvious and sensible decisions are not always the decisions tennis pros make. Nishikori arrived at the fundamental insight that playing tennis has to be done with a maximum amount of confidence in one’s health, otherwise phrased as minimal worries about injuries or physical strain. A player’s mind must be uncluttered — it is difficult enough to play world-class tennis as it is. Doubts about injuries, and about the movements and adjustments a body must make in the course of play, cannot interfere with the instant and reflexive processes which necessarily guide full-tilt competition.
Whether it is Roger Federer’s back spasms, Rafael Nadal’s knees, or Novak Djokovic’s elbow, even the greatest of the great tennis players who have walked the Earth in this era of men’s tennis have run up against physical limitations. When they take the court, they need to be right. It is no different for Nishikori.
The longer layoff for Nishikori is also wise because players constantly getting chewed up by the strain of consistent tour competition have often benefited from extended breaks. Federer after his injuries in 2016 stands out as a foremost example, but other breaks — some not even caused by injury — changed careers for the better.
Think of Marin Cilic after his suspension. His legs were fresher, which played a role in his dazzling 2014 U.S. Open performance in the second week, once he survived a long (and mediocre) match with Gilles Simon in the fourth round.
Rafael Nadal won two majors in 2013 — and won Canada, Cincinnati, and the U.S. Open, one of the hardest triple-feat bundles to achieve in tennis — after an extended injury layoff.
These injuries or suspensions weren’t “good” for the careers of the athletes involved. Nadal has missed several major tournaments due to injury and retired from others, a chief reason he doesn’t have the 20 titles Federer now owns. The key insight into this topic is that when athletes do take extended time off, make use of it, and don’t rush the process of reintegration into the tour, they can do great things.
Nishikori, by taking a longer break and not trying to rush back to the court, is giving this plan — and the tennis worldview attached to it — a real chance to succeed.
Nishikori doesn’t need to accumulate results right away. This reality would exist under any set of circumstances, because feeling good and playing with comfort are his two most important goals at the moment. However, the need to not obsess about match outcomes is even more pronounced for Nishikori because his return to competition comes at one of the softer periods in the tour calendar.
December is an offseason month. Among the 11 in-season months on tour, February is the only one on the ATP Tour without a tournament worth 1,000 points or more. In addition to that fact, the start of February leaves Nishikori and all other rehabbing ATP pros (Djokovic, Wawrinka, Raonic, and others trying to heal and/or work off rust) with 3.5 months until it is time to board a plane to Paris for Roland Garros.
Being able to do something of consequence at Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Madrid or Rome would be a welcome bonus for Nishikori and others in a similar situation, but since three of the four majors are contested within 3.5 months in the late spring and the whole of the summer, Nishikori should be primarily focused on being ready to be at his best in late May. His career is still waiting for a second chance at a major final, a second chance to make the breakthrough Caroline Wozniacki just forged in women’s tennis.
Nishikori has taken a different view of time and traveled a different route in his pursuit of a renewed march to the top tier of men’s tennis. We don’t need to assign too much weight to anything which happens in February… unless “anything” includes an injury.
Nishikori gave up time so that time can be on his side in the future. Nishikori is being patient. Fans and pundits need to be patient with him in 2018.