Kei Nishikori heaped praise on his fellow Japanese player Naomi Osaka and believes the 20-year-old will crack the top-10 soon.
Osaka, currently ranked No. 21 in the world, is enjoying a breakthrough season having claimed the Indian Wells title last March.
While Nishikori, a former US Open finalist, is like a rock star in Japan, he tips Osaka to experience similar success, and says she’s gaining popularity back home.
“It’s very great for Japan tennis. The way she plays, I think she has very bright future,” Nishikori said in Madrid following his straight-sets loss to Novak Djokovic in the first round on Monday.
“Big serve, big forehand. She can really play with top-level players. I’m sure she’s going to be top 10 soon. Yeah, hope to see her winning Grand Slams in the future.”
Nishikori, who was out with a wrist injury from August 2017 until the end of January 2018, is still on the comeback trail and admits he is not feeling 100 per cent yet.
His wrist was taped in his match against Djokovic on Monday, for the first time since he returned from injury.
“Actually first time after coming back injury because it was little better with the tape. It’s not the best way to tape, better without. I kind of have to this week,” said Nishikori, who is currently ranked No. 20 in the world.
“My wrist is not 100 per cent yet, but close to playing enough tennis. I think I need couple more weeks to get used to playing on clay, as it causes more damage to my wrist, play more spin.
“But it’s not too bad. I recover from last week. I love these two tournaments (in Barcelona and Madrid). Unfortunate this year, but hopefully I do well next year.”
Nishikori was unlucky to draw the 10th-seeded Djokovic in the first round, and the result was an early exit at a tournament where he had previously reached the final.
“I’m expecting tough draw every round because I don’t have seeded this year I think. Well, yeah, I knew he wasn’t playing really well last couple weeks. But if something clicks for me him, he’s going to come back again to top 10 level,” Nishikori said of Djokovic.
“I think he was playing better after first set. I think I lost couple important points. I wasn’t playing deep. I could play little better. But I think he was playing good tennis today.”
Novak Djokovic’s life on tour these days is significantly different than what he had grown accustomed to throughout a decade of competing at the highest level.
Seeded a lowly No. 10 at the Madrid Open this week, he had no bye in the first round and was drawn to face another former top-five player who has slipped in the rankings due to injuries – Kei Nishikori.
It was a test that could ultimately prove a blessing in disguise as Djokovic claimed a confidence-boosting 7-5, 6-4 victory over the Japanese, who just last month had reached the Monte Carlo final but is still not 100 per cent recovered from a wrist injury that kept him sidelined from August last year until the end of January.
Djokovic, a two-time champion in Madrid, broke once at the tail-end of each set to wrap up the victory in just under two hours. The Serb faces either Daniil Medvedev or Kyle Edmund in the second round.
“Well, it was strange, I must admit, playing Kei in the first round. Our rankings dropped due to injuries and everything that was happening for both of us in the last year. I mean, it can happen and it did happen here,” said Djokovic, who didn’t play for the last six months of 2017 then had elbow surgery in February, amassing just a 5-5 win-loss record in 2018 heading into Madrid.
“Of course, I’ve played Kei on big occasions, in many of the big tournaments, finals and semi-finals. It was different to play him in the first round. It was a big test for both of us.
“I’m glad that match went my way, but it could have gone his way as well. It was a very few points that really decided a winner today.
“It was exactly what I needed for my confidence and for my game. I’m just happy to go through this one.”
Djokovic’s dip in form and poor results aren’t the only things that are different for him at the moment. They’ve resulted in a lower seeding at tournaments which means that after a decade of being one of the higher seeds, he now doesn’t get a bye at a Masters 1000 like Madrid, he can play someone like Nishikori in the first round, and doesn’t have to do the mandatory pre-event press conferences.
That last one is a welcome change for Djokovic he said with a laugh.
“There are some positives about it. Not that I don’t like you guys, but sometimes it’s nice,” said the 30-year-old Serb.
“I came in, I was, like, waiting for my team, Elena to tell me when the press conference is. She’s like, ‘No press conference’. I’m like, ‘Okay, great’. So it is different.
“Some things that I haven’t faced, haven’t experienced for a long, long time. I mean, I was very fortunate throughout my career to go in kind of an upward direction always with my results and with my success. Ever since I got to top 10, for a decade I didn’t go out from top 10. That’s something I’m very proud about and of course grateful for. At the same time it had to happen. These are the circumstances that I’m facing at the moment. I’m trying to get the best out of them.”
Djokovic isn’t shying away from the challenge and in fact is embracing his new position.
“That’s life,” he continued. “Life is there to test us, to allow us to understand that we can get the best out of all situations, to grow and to be the best versions of ourselves. That’s how I approach it. That’s how I see it.
“It’s not easy. At times, you know, you start to question because I achieved a lot in this sport. Then when you have to kind of start over again, start finding inspirations and ways and stuff like this to keep on going, it’s tricky. The mind plays games with you. You have to kind of dig deep.
“That’s what we are supposed to do if we want to get to a better place always, as people and as professional athletes. It’s a beautiful process.”
Djokovic appears to be heading towards the right direction this clay season. He won two matches in Monte Carlo before losing in the last-16 to Dominic Thiem and now has taken out a tricky opponent in Nishikori.
Thiem says he felt he saw the spark back in Djokovic’s eyes during that three-setter in Monaco and believes the 12-time Grand Slam champion looks on his way back to winning ways.
“I think you saw it especially in the match against me (in Monte Carlo), that somehow the fire in his eyes and his body is kind of back, the way he was acting when he broke me back in the first set was when I think everybody got reminded of his best times, how he was acting and how his presence was on court. I think if he keeps that up he’ll be back at the very top level,” Thiem told reporters in Madrid on Sunday.
Juan Martin del Potro is eyeing a move up the rankings this clay season, which he will kick off by competing at the Mutua Madrid Open this week.
Appearing at the tournament for the first time in two years, Del Potro hasn’t played a singles match since his Miami semi-final exit in late March. He lost his doubles clash, alongside Dominic Thiem, in Madrid on Monday against Pablo Cuevas and Marcel Granollers.
The Argentine world No. 6 took a five-week break after John Isner ended his 15-match winning streak at the Miami Open and many people speculated that Del Potro might opt out of the clay season this year in order to preserve his injury-prone body.
But it seems that time off only fueled him to get back to the tennis court, where he hopes to do better on the red dirt compared to an average performance on the surface last year.
“The last weeks were great to me. I been at home for a while, spending good time with friends, family. Also training to be ready for these tournaments. We decided to come here maybe couple of weeks ago when I got good feelings on the clay court,” Del Potro told reporters in Madrid, where he is seeded No. 4 and had a bye in the first round.
“I’m still thinking it’s a good opportunity for me to keep growing up in the ranking maybe and keep doing well. But I know how tough is this tournament for me. But anyways, I’m happy to be back on Madrid after a long time.”
Del Potro begins his campaign at the Caja Magica on Tuesday against Bosnian Damir Dzumhur (not before 22:00 Dubai time on beIN Sports).
The 29-year-old returned to the top-10 earlier this year, for the first time since 2014, and he has already picked up titles in Acapulco and Indian Wells – which was his maiden triumph at the Masters 1000 level.
The 2009 US Open champion has enjoyed most of his success on hard courts, but he is no push-over on clay, with his winning record on the surface being the seventh-highest among active players (71 per cent).
Asked if that fact surprises him, Del Potro said: “Yes, a little bit. Well, I started to play tennis on clay court, so I know how the game is. But I’m getting older, too.
“Anyways, I like to play Madrid. Here the conditions for play are good. We have altitude. The ball go fast. The server players has chance to win here because these conditions. So it could be a good opportunity to me.”
Four of Del Potro’s 22 career titles have come on clay, and he’ll be looking to add to that over the next few weeks in Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros.
His appearance in the Spanish capital came in 2009 and 2012 when he made the semi-finals and he owns a 14-6 win-loss record at the tournament overall.