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KEI NISHIKORI AND THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN

by

Matt Zemek

The errors kept piling up for Kei Nishikori on Friday afternoon at the Miami Open. A man who had played just one match since February 17, due to a last-minute Indian Wells pullout caused by illness, badly needed more match play. The rust in his game was evident as he struggled all afternoon to get past John Millman, a respectable yet hardly imposing opponent.

Nishikori won the first set, but he had to do so after falling behind 5-2 and saving five set points. He walked on a tightrope and somehow avoided falling off. Against opponents better than Millman, such a dance with danger won’t end as happily. If Nishikori thought his day was going to get better after that first-set escape, the tennis gods and Millman had other ideas. Millman bolted to a quick 2-0 lead in the second set. Nishikori fought back to level at 2-2, but Millman resumed putting Nishikori on the defensive and claimed the set, 6-4. Nishikori pushed and pushed at the start of the third set but could not cash in four separate break points. He struggled with his forehand and continued to wrestle with inconsistency, as anyone should be expected to do when lacking high-end match play over the course of a month.

Nishikori kept fighting, though, and by continuing to create break-point chances — making volume of opportunity his friend, even though his specific conversion rate wasn’t that tidy — he finally gained a break and a 4-2 lead in the final set. He made that break lead stand up, forging a 7-6, 4-6, 6-3 win in just under three hours.

Nishikori’s comeback must be going better than Novak Djokovic’s comeback, right?

Well……. maybe, but the most honest and responsible answer is: It is too early to make sweeping statements.

This is when analysis and commentary become very complicated. Fans want to know where players stand. In any topic, people who read publications or watch television generally want answers from people who try to make a career out of following a given theater of activity, whether it might be sports or politics or law enforcement or anything else under the sun. We are conditioned to want answers in general, and in the internet-social media age, the human brain is being rewired by a flood of technological stimuli (plus a more rapid news cycle and increasingly insatiable demands for instant content) in ways which accelerate a desire for answers.

Yet, swimming against the tide of these technological and cultural realities has to be done at times. One such representation of swimming against the tide is to stand up and say: “You know what? I don’t know.”

It is not a sexy or satisfying answer. It is not what anyone wants to hear. Heck, it is not something an analyst or commentator personally enjoys saying. It is so much more fun in this business to have a strong opinion and feel liberated enough to put it on paper (or more precisely, adjusted for this era of human communications and publishing) on a computer screen and a Twitter account.

Yet, there are times when “I don’t know” is the most accurate and — moreover — the most mature answer.

Such is the case with a comparison of the Nishikori and Djokovic comebacks.

To be sure, Djokovic’s comeback is not off to a roaring start. To that extent, Nishikori’s comeback attempt might be slightly better if only because it is harder to have a bar set lower than where it currently exists for Djokovic.

Yet, let’s not go down the road of hyperbole. Nishikori had to play a very long, error-filled match against a not-that-great opponent. He won, but hardly looked convincing. Are we going to allow one match outcome — Nishikori’s win, and Djokovic’s loss to Benoit Paire — dramatically influence a larger line of thought on these twin comeback attempts? It seems patently foolish to view these players in very different ways based on one match.

The much larger unifying dimension of these two players is that they have played very little tennis over the past month and are consequently in very uncomfortable positions for pro athletes. Human beings who play high-level sports for a living depend on constant and regular rhythm. Unless or until they gain that rhythm, their minds are generally clouded and cluttered — by doubts to a certain degree, and also (especially in Djokovic’s case) worries about how fluidly the body is able to perform physical techniques and actions which were once second nature, and now have to be re-learned to a degree. Success in these pursuits after long periods of interruption accompanied by physical discomfort will not come right away.

Are we REALLY going to assign a different evaluation to Nishikori just because he happened to win and Djokovic lost?

If Nishikori blitzed Millman, 2 and 3, and committed very few errors, we could perhaps conduct a different conversation, but Nishikori fought his accuracy and range for nearly three hours.

Yes, it is better to win than lose, and yes, Nishikori gained more match play with his victory, which he certainly needs. It is not as though this win over Millman was worthless.

What does it mean, though? Let’s not pretend we have a clear and resonant answer — that will come in the fullness of time. Let’s be honest enough to acknowledge what we don’t know — in tennis and in the rest of life.

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