JACQUELINE DILANCHYAN WRITES – Japan’s Kei Nishikori made a highly anticipated return to professional tennis this January, but it wasn’t the expected Australian Open, this season’s first Grand Slam, where he made his awaited comeback. Instead, Nishikori made his comeback at the ATP Challenger Tour Event in Newport Beach, which was held from January 20 through January 28. This Challenger was part of the Oracle Challenger Series, which also includes another Challenger tournament that Nishikori will be competing in towards the end of February.

Nishikori hasn’t played since August 9, when he failed to defeat Gael Monfils at the Coupe Rogers in Montreal. The Japanese tennis star was forced to pull out from the 2017 season before it concluded due to an injury to his right wrist.

Currently ranked at number 22 in the ATP Rankings, Nishikori is the first and only male Japanese tennis player ever to be ranked inside the men’s ATP top 5 in singles. However, Japan is not the only country rooting for Kei’s success. Nishikori is the first man from any Asian country to qualify for the ATP World Tour Finals. He has won 11 singles titles and was runner up at the 2014 U.S. Open, making him the first male player representing an Asian country to reach a Grand Slam singles final.

However, Japan and the rest of Asia are not the only ones scratching their heads after seeing that Nishikori skipped this years first Grand Slam. Nishikori previously released a statement: “I am very excited and looking forward to getting back on the court in January…The Oracle Challenger Series is a perfect event in a great Southern California location to help me get some match play. This will be a great opportunity to face some high-level competition.”

Players with an ATP ranking between number 11 and number 50 can play Challenger tournaments if they receive a wild card, and if the donation of the Challenger is higher than $50,000, which explains how Nishikori was able to qualify for the Challenger.

But why would Nishikori downgrade his status and partake in a Challenger tournament? As Nishikori draws closer to the age of 30, his body will have a harder time bouncing back from injuries. The healing process for injuries become harder and takes longer with each year that a player ages.

Part of being a smart professional athlete means that you acknowledge this growing and inevitable disadvantage. Taking a little longer to return from an injury ensures that your injury is properly healed and rehabbed– allowing a stronger comeback. Unlike a lot of top ranked ATP players, Nishikori understands this.

Rather than making his return in Melbourne, Nishikori understands that his body is not yet ready to play 5 set matches just yet. Taking it nice and slow will guarantee that strong and solid return to professional tennis. Playing Challengers with three set matches will not only allow him to get some decent match time in, it will also allow him to get some points on the board. Winning a Challenger will get him anywhere from 80 to 125 points.

Instead of waiting for this year’s ATP 250 series to start in February, Nishikori made his comeback as soon as possible, starting with Challengers this past month. Instead of sitting and watching, wondering what could have been at the Australian Open, Nishikori made a smart return to tennis, easing his wrist back into the game, and preparing to make his Grand Slam return in Paris, France this May.

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