Healthy Nishikori quietly outlasts Evans in five-set rollercoaster

Healthy Nishikori quietly outlasts Evans in five-set rollercoaster

On the comeback from elbow surgery and COVID-19, the former world No. 4 won his first Grand Slam match since the 2019 US Open.

Just over a year ago, Kei Nishikori was the No. 7 seed at the US Open. He'd reach the third round and that would be the last time he competed until this month, marking a full year of inactivity. On Sunday, unseeded at Roland Garros, he won a rollercoaster first-round marathon over Dan Evans, 1-6, 6-1, 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-4.

"I was little more patient from second set," Nishikori told press. "Things start working well for me because first set I was rushing too much and I didn't feel well. It was raining heavy. It was not usual situation. From second set, start playing better."

It's the first time he's unseeded at a major since 2011. Due to right elbow injury surgery, the former world No. 4 was off the tour from last August until he appeared this month in Kitzbuhel. He had plans to start his comeback earlier than September, but tested positive for COVID-19 just ahead of the New York swing as he was preparing to leave his training base in Florida.

A US Open finalist in 2014, the setback heavily damped his match play opportunities as the tennis world somewhat forgot about him with more raucous headlines quickly taking over.

"With COVID-19, I didn't have many symptoms luckily, so I think it's OK," he said.

The 30-year-old's comeback got off to a slow start: He would go 1-3 after also playing in Rome and Hamburg. The good news is that after nearly four hours on Sunday in front of a smattering of patriotic fans, Nishikori felt just some soreness in his arm, which he says is almost at 100 percent.

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With his ranking of No. 35, Nishikori narrowly missed out on a seeding in Paris. Evans, ranked just one  spot higher than him at No. 34, would snag the final seeding position of No. 32. Instead of lamenting at that, or how close he is in the draw to Rafael Nadal (a possible third-round clash), Nishikori feels lucky.

"It is tough, you have to play seeded player in the early round," he said. "But I feel like I'm lucky because I'm supposed to [have] zero points. I haven't played from US Open. It's been one year. I could have no ranking."

Due to the new ATP rules counting the best performances from the past 22 months instead of the usual 12, Nishikori has retained a chunk of points he would have seen drop off. Though that would end up making no difference in his draw, it has in his confidence in coming back.

"I feel like myself a little bit lucky with this situation. I'm still pleased to play [and] enjoy here," he said.

Much has been made of the challenging conditions given how late the tournament has been forced to start. Not surprisingly, Paris in the fall is quite opposite to Paris in the early summer. Temperatures are dipping into the 50s with cloudy skies, periods of dreary drizzle and even outright rain welcoming players to court on Day 1.

The ball isn't bouncing as high, but part of that may be due to the new heavier balls, which some, including Nadal, have expressed disapproval of.

Evans certainly didn't mince words.

"The balls we were using, you wouldn’t give to a dog to chew," he told press. "Listen, it is what it is, but it’s brutal, it's so cold. I think the balls are the biggest thing. Maybe they got it a little wrong with the balls. It's tough to get that ball to go anywhere."

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The Brit did credit organizers on pulling off the event and Nishikori on a good match, which had a flurry of ups and downs.

"For my tennis, I think it's better balls are flying because I like to play quicker, finish the point little bit quicker than other guys," Nishikori said. "But, yes, for sure it's less bounce. Especially today it didn't bounce. Almost half [the] bounce [as] playing in the summer."

A three-time Roland Garros quarterfinalist, Nishikori still prevailed despite losing two sets by a dismal 6-1 scoreline and botching a 3-0 lead in the fifth. He pulled it off by shortening points and closing into the net—66 times to be exact—despite the low bounces, damp court and heavy balls dragging everything down.

Overlooked despite his dazzling resume, Nishikori will keep plugging away quietly as he takes on Italian Stefano Travaglia in the second round.