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'Mentally Shocking': The Story Behind Kei Nishikori's Comeback

Former US Open finalist plays his first ATP Tour match in more than 18 months
July 26, 2023
Kei Nishikori takes the court in Atlanta for his first tour-level match since October 2021.
Alex Smith/Atlanta Open
Kei Nishikori takes the court in Atlanta for his first tour-level match since October 2021. By Paul Macpherson

Kei Nishikori just couldn’t catch a break.

After sitting out the 2022 season following hip surgery, the Japanese star was in Bradenton, Florida working hard at the end of the year to be ready for a return at the start of 2023. That’s when a seemingly minor ankle sprain spiralled into something much more serious.

“After eight or nine months of rehab after the hip surgery I was almost ready to come back when I sprained my ankle,” Nishikori told Tuesday at the Atlanta Open. “It turned out to be complicated and much worse than what I first saw. That set me back another four or five months.

“Once or twice I almost thought [about retiring]. It was mentally shocking to be so close and then to have a second injury. I wasn’t sure if I could come back from that. So that was the toughest time.”

Little wonder then that Nishikori’s first tour-level win (over Jordan Thompson Tuesday in the first round of the Atlanta Open) since Indian Wells in October 2021 was an emotional experience.

“It was very emotional after everything that it took to get back,” he said after the 7-6(5), 7-6(5) victory in two hours and 25 minutes in the heat. “I’m just so happy to be back here playing. I have zero pressure and can play free. I’m just having fun on the court. And I’m excited to be playing against the top guys again.

“I have had a good team around me and I’m very thankful that Max and Michael kept encouraging me. They still believe in me and I believe it too.”

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Max Mirnyi, part of Nishikori’s coaching team with Michael Chang, has been at the 33-year-old’s side during the tough moments and was on hand Tuesday in Atlanta for the comeback win.

"He never lost sight of the light at the end of the tunnel. It can be gruelling and tough to stay motivated, but he was never in doubt and kept on working,” said Mirnyi, who played 486 singles matches and 1125 doubles matches during his career. “He always saw that this was a possibility. He was very professional throughout this time and to see him back and competing on the Tour is great.”

Former World No. 4 Nishikori, who finds himself at No. 439 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, began his comeback in mid-June in Puerto Rico on the ATP Challenger Tour. He was searching for matches to get some rhythm and build confidence. The decision to start in the minor leagues paid immediate dividends as he won the title for the loss of just one set. He then got another five matches under his belt at Challengers in Bloomfield Hills, MI, and Chicago before heading to Atlanta.

<a href=''>Kei Nishikori</a> in action at the Chicago Challenger.
Kei Nishikori in action at the Chicago Challenger. Photo: Daniel Westhoff

“I was just expecting to play one match, maybe two, but with each match I played better and started feeling the confidence,” Nishikori said of his Challenger Tour run. “I started getting the feeling of being back playing matches, feeling the nerves. I was very happy to win a title in my first tournament back and then I lost to a couple of good players after that. I wasn’t too sad about it. I was just excited to be playing.”

Nishikori decided to have hip surgery in February 2022 to avoid the fate of Bob Bryan and Andy Murray, who are both sporting metal hips. The former US Open finalist had similar surgery at a similar time to James Duckworth, although the Australian made it back on Tour just a few months later in May.

“My hip was not too bad, not like Andy,” Nishikori said. “We shaved some bone away and also I had a little bit of a tear in the labrum. Had I kept playing without the surgery then I may have had to do something like Andy did. But fortunately, I found out before it got really bad.

“I talked to James Duckworth, who had the same surgery and I was really surprised how quickly he came back to playing. But he told me that he had some issues, so perhaps he came back too early. I decided to take a little more time.

“One of my biggest doubts was whether I would be able to move like I used to. And also that you lose the feeling for the ball on the racquet and you have zero confidence. You’ve got to build again from zero, so it’s a tough mental challenge.”

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If his body cooperates, Nishikori says that he has the hunger to play for several more years. One motivating factor is to compete against the game’s new faces who have climbed into the Top 10 during his absence.

“One thing I hope to get the chance to do is to play against these great young players like Alcaraz, Rune and Sinner at some point,” he said. “That’s part of my motivation to try to play for a few more years.

“I don’t think we have seen anyone like Alcaraz before. He looks like Rafa but he has more speed. Good defence, unbelievable forehand and he has a good backhand too.”

Mirnyi, affectionately known as ‘The Beast’, said that Team Nishikori is pleased with the progress, but is in no rush to set lofty goals for the remainder of this year and next.

"There was a lot of patience involved and it's great to see him back playing at the Tour level,” Mirnyi said. “He may not be back to his best yet but most importantly he is healthy. Including the Challengers, he's been back for three or four weeks and he is feeling strong and his body is allowing him to play a tough match like the one he just played today.”

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