Paris: Kei Nishikori is healthy and ready to return to Grand Slam action at the French Open with what amounts to a rather modest goal, given his rate of success in recent years.
“I hope,” he said, “I can go to the second week.”
By now, that’s nearly a given whenever he enters major tournaments. Nishikori, a 28-year-old from Japan who is seeded 19th at Roland Garros, is scheduled to play Maxime Janvier in the first round Sunday.
While Janvier has never played a Tour-level match, and has never been ranked better than 228th, Nishikori is familiar with the upper echelons of tennis. He has been ranked as high as No. 4, was the runner-up at the 2014 US Open and a semi-finalist in New York two years later, along with making five other quarter final runs at majors, including the French Open in two of the past three years.
But after appearing in 21 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments, he missed two in a row — last year’s US Open, then the Australian Open this January — because his right wrist was not fully recovered enough from a torn tendon.
Getting in a lot of matches on red clay ahead of Paris became a priority, and Nishikori did just that, reaching the final at the Monte Carlo Masters before losing to Rafael Nadal, and the quarter finals at the Italian Open before losing to Novak Djokovic.
Along the way at those two events, Nishikori defeated Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic and Grigor Dimitrov, all ranked in the top five.
“I’m feeling very confident,” Nishikori said, “especially after beating those players.”
The challenge now is that he will need to win best-of-five-set matches, instead of best-of-three, something he hasn’t had to do in a while.
“Hopefully I can finish as soon as possible on the court and not have to use too much energy each time,” Nishikori said. “On the clay, you have to play heavy and you have to play smart, too. You cannot play just aggressive. You’ve got to be really smart.”
His coach, 1989 French Open champion Michael Chang, said that getting through some quick and relatively easy matches in the early rounds could be vital to a long stay in the draw for Nishikori.
Also important, according to Chang: staying focused. “It’s a combination of continuing to work on his game and being stronger mentally when it really, really counts. You need that,” Chang said. “In the big matches, in the big moments, you can’t afford to have one loose game on your serve. You just can’t do it. Guys are going to take advantage of it. The guys who are ranked a little bit lower — you can get away with it, a little bit here, a little bit there. The better guys, you can’t get away with it.”