Nishikori Draws Positives & Crowd In Comeback Match
Fans lined up outside of the Newport Beach Tennis Club as early as 8:30am. The Japanese media came out in force, with a WOWOW crew on site to broadcast the match. Tommy Haas, the BNP Paribas Open Tournament Director and former World No. 2, could be seen walking around the grounds. By the time the match started at 1pm, hundreds of spectators surrounded Court No. 1.
Rusty, but ready, Kei Nishikori made his long-awaited return to professional tennis in front of a packed crowd on Tuesday at the inaugural ATP Challenger Tour event in Newport Beach, California. Following five months on the sidelines due to a wrist injury, the Japanese star kicked off his comeback at the Oracle Challenger Series Newport Beach, dropping a tight 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 encounter against American Dennis Novikov.
“It was good. Wrist was fine,” said Nishikori. “I just need more time, I guess, to get used to more matches. Very rusty on the court. Very up and down still. But I think there were some positive things and also some negative things too, but that’s something I have to work on a couple more weeks and I think it will get better.”
Competing in his first tournament since the Coupe Rogers in August, the Japanese No. 1 showed flashes of his supreme talent that saw him climb to the Top 5 of the ATP Rankings less than a year ago. In one point, a running backhand pass capped a 23-shot rally and brought the crowd to their feet. It was vintage Nishikori defence on display.
But he also showed signs of rust around the court, as he admitted himself, and room for improvement going forward. Though Nishikori prevented his opponent from serving out the match at 5-3, the 24-year-old Novikov got the job done in the next game, finishing four for 15 on break point chances and earning his first Top 30 victory after one hour and 47 minutes.
“It was really fun here. I’ve been here before, so that’s something I can enjoy a little more. Coming to California, I don’t have much chance to come here, and my coach’s house is around here. It was good to enjoy this week.”
Still, the match proved an important first step for Nishikori on his road back, which will continue next week at the RBC Tennis Championships of Dallas, a $125,000 Challenger event, followed by his return to the ATP World Tour at the inaugural New York Open. He had opted to start his comeback in Newport Beach instead of Australia, explaining “I wasn’t sure if I could play five sets with my wrist”, and he drew important takeaways from match play.
“The wrist was feeling pretty good,” Nishikori said. “It wasn’t too bad, so that’s very positive. That’s the most important thing for me right now… It was good to have three sets today with not too much pain.
“I still need more better groundstrokes, not to miss too much easy balls, but I just need some more confidence and to get more matches,” he added. “I need one more week to practise and hopefully I can be playing good in New York.”