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Kei Nishikori continues to be a walking house of illusions

Matt Zemek

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Robert Deutsch - USA TODAY Sports

Kei Nishikori isn’t the Devil, but he is a tricky fellow just the same.

“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

That quote from the 1995 movie “The Usual Suspects” goes deep into history. 19th-century French writer Charles Baudelaire is credited by some with creating that quote, but the contents of it precede him by multiple decades. An author named John Wilkinson provided a variation of the quote in 1836.

Kei Nishikori’s greatest trick is making people think his results are worse than they actually are. Such is the case after Nishikori crashed out of Dubai in the second round on Wednesday, falling to Hubert Hurkacz in three sets.

Nishikori is known for losing a lot of tournament finals. He is known for being injured a lot, which changes the way we evaluate sports careers. An injury-free or low-injury career and a high-injury career which both produce the same (or very similar kinds of) results cannot be viewed in the same terms or on the same plane. Nishikori is such a difficult player to evaluate because the specter of injury — chiefly his wrist — has been so omnipresent in his career.

Given that uncertainty, it is already difficult to assess Nishikori in a fuller context. Yet, his career — while carrying certain “what-if” qualities and dimensions — is not as sad or barren as it often seems. Look at this list of tournament results over the past several months. It sure looks a lot better on paper than the emotions so many of Kei’s losses in this time period have elicited:

The portfolio of Nishikori results is not spectacular, but one of the basic measurements of professional quality is the ability to contend for championships and offer a steady, credible, workmanlike performance whenever you show up in your workplace and ply your trade. Nishikori does that. He is almost always seen playing on a Friday at any tournament he enters. He doesn’t lift a ton of trophies, but he is almost always in the mix.

This Dubai loss might seem “normal” to Nishikori observers in that it was a weird match in which the pieces just didn’t fit together. We have seen that a lot from Kei over the years. Yet, the rarity with which Nishikori has lost before the quarterfinals in any tour event over the past several months must be taken into account.

How good — or modest, or frustrating, or subtly impressive — has Kei Nishikori’s career been?

The devil if I know.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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