Returning to competition for the first time since the BNP Paribas Open in October 2021, Nishikori recorded a 6-2, 7-5 triumph against his 19-year-old opponent in the ATP Challenger Tour event.
Nishikori, an unranked, wild-card participant in Palmas del Mar, Puerto Rico, reached 492 in the world rankings by beating Zheng to cap a successful week.
A Look at the Match with Zheng
Entering the Caribbean Open, Columbia University student Zheng was ranked 1,118th. With his performance in Puerto Rico, Zheng climbed to 543 in the world rankings.
In their first head-to-head matchup, Nishikori converted 6 of 16 break points and won 59% of his service points (36-for-61).
Nishikori moved quickly on the court and hit powerful shots throughout the match. And he was alert and displayed acute court awareness in both sets. (Watch match highlights on YouTube.)
Lashing a forehand winner to close the fifth game of the first set, Nishikori took a commanding 4-1 lead. Nishikori later wrapped up the first set with an ace.
He faced stiffer competition in the second set from his determined teenage opponent, with a 2-2 tie at the conclusion of the fourth game. But Nishikori earned a vital break point to pull ahead 3-2, then extended his lead to 5-2.
Zheng rallied to even it up at 5-5 before Nishikori regained the lead on a well-timed volley as he approached the net to close out the next game.
In the final game, Nishikori sliced a forehand volley beyond Zheng's reach for the title-clinching shot. And he raised both arms in celebration.
Successful Week at the Caribbean Open
To reach the final, the 33-year-old Nishikori defeated Americans Christian Langmo (6-2, 6-4) and Mitchell Krueger (4-6, 6-3, 6-2), Australia's Adam Walton (6-4, 6-2) and Brazil's Gustavo Heide (6-4, 6-2) in succession.
For Nishikori, who achieved a career-high No. 4 ranking in March 2015, the Caribbean Open was the first big step toward getting ready for the US Open. The year's final Grand Slam tournament begins on August 28 in New York.
Nishikori underwent arthroscopic left hip surgery in January 2022. His comeback was further delayed by an ankle injury.
The Shimane Prefecture native's return to competition added a jolt of positivity to the tennis community this past week. Throughout his career, Nishikori, a 12-time winner on the ATP Tour, has been a popular player, one who's admired for his work ethic and professionalism.
Kei Nishikori, who's been out for 20 months recovering from hip surgery just won a Challenger in his 1st event back— The Tennis Letter (@TheTennisLetter) June 18, 2023
To say the tour has missed him would be an understatement
His game & attitude always brought something fresh to the tour
It's great to have you back, Kei 🇯🇵❤ pic.twitter.com/zMTqZl41hW
Veteran British player Andy Murray, a winner of 46 career titles, congratulated Nishikori on Twitter.
"Well done @keinishikori on winning your comeback," Murray tweeted.
Nishikori Says He's 'Very Happy'
After sealing his 1 hour, 41-minute win over Zheng, Nishikori shared his thoughts on his overall play in Puerto Rico.
"I'm very happy I won the title this week in Puerto Rico and also the way I played," Nishikori said in a short video posted on the ATP Challenger Tour's official Twitter account.
"It was really high level and I cannot ask for more than this. And I'm able to play five matches in a row and my body's OK. That's most important, being healthy, and I hope I can keep going."
It was his first title since winning the Brisbane International in January 2019.
Nishikori also said he appreciated the support from many people to help him prepare for and participate in his comeback tournament.
"But thanks to everybody waiting for so long," the 2014 US Open runner-up said. "Sponsors and my team, thank you for all the support."
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- Kei Nishikori to Skip the US Open as Return from Hip Surgery Pushed Back
Author: Ed Odeven