The 2018 tennis season is well underway, with players fully rested and ready for another rigorous season on the ATP Tour. However, for two former top ten players, the increasing schedule and physicality of the tour has proven a serious obstacle.
A hard road back
Ranked 23rd and 24th in the ATP rankings respectively, the last 12 months have been tough on Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori. For Raonic, a hamstring injury hampered the early part of his 2017 season causing him to pull out of the Delray Beach final against Sock and the first Masters 1000 event of the year in Indian Wells. In Miami, the Canadian pulled out ahead of his third round match against Jared Donaldson. Raonic made two Slam quarterfinals, but was forced to end his season early after Wimbledon.
For Nishikori injuries have been a constant problem. Throughout 2017 he struggled for fitness. He put in a respectable performance at the Australian Open and at Roland Garros, but for a player of his quality the fourth round in Melbourne and the quarters at Roland Garros are hardly career highlights. He then lost early to Roberto Bautista Agut at Wimbledon and played only one more tournament, the Rogers Cup, before joining Raonic, Wawrinka and Djokovic in calling time on his season.
Not long ago it seemed both players were destined for Grand Slam glory. At Flushing Meadows in 2014, Nishikori made the US Open final, beating Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals and Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. It seemed like the moment he broke through into the elite echelons of the game and he was most people's favourite going into the final. But Marin Cilic hadn't read that script and the Croatian crushed Nishikori 3, 3 and 3.
He has arguably never really recovered from that defeat, and he hasn't threatened to make a Slam final again, with his best effort since another US Open semifinal in 2016 where he was well beaten by eventual champion Stan Wawrinka. For Raonic the breakthrough came a little later, but when he made the Wimbledon final in 2016 by defeating Roger Federer the only way for the big-serving Canadian seemed to be up. Murray got the better of him there, but he continued to play good tennis that year and came to within a whisker of defeating Andy Murray at the O2 in the semifinals.
But 2017 didn't see the consistent results that were expected of Raonic. Going into the Australian Open he was a dark horse for many, and his title-odds got even better when Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray crashed out before the quarterfinals. But the Canadian fell in the quarterfinals to Rafael Nadal and injuries cost him most of the rest of his year. He managed to make the quarterfinals at Wimbledon but barely played thereafter.
Is a Slam still possible?
It seems that both players may well struggle to win a Slam even if they return to full fitness. The field is getting more competitive as players like Zverev, Thiem, Goffin and Dimitrov are continuing to improve and develop. That combined with the resurgence of Federer and Nadal mean it will be even tougher to win big tournaments and Slams. Nishikori and Raonic will not only need to return to full fitness, they will also need to address the weaknesses in their games.
Despite having one of the best backhands in the game, the serve has always been a weakness for Nishikori. His first delivery lacks pace and isn't a weapon whilst his second is too often spun into the middle of the service box leaving him vulnerable against the best returners in the game. His forehand can be lethal but it is inconsistent and can bleed unforced errors when he isn't hitting it with confidence.
Milos Raonic has one of the biggest serves in the game and has a lot of firepower off the ground. However, he could use his serve more effectively by more regularly going for placement over power. He uses a lot of body serves and despite these sometimes being effective; it can become predictable. With him being 6ft5 he could go to the net more and impose himself more on opponents, although he would have to work on his volleying, which is all too often clumsy.
However, even if both players improved their games, the quality of tennis on the ATP World Tour is such, particularly with younger players breaking through, that Nishikori and Raonic's Slam chances are looking increasingly slim. And with the game becoming more physically demanding whether they will have enough time injury-free to get into Slam winning form is uncertain. One can only hope that Nishikori and Raonic can work their way back to the form they had in reaching the Grand Slam finals. But at the moment, it is more hope than expectation.
Do you think Nishikori and Raonic can still win a Slam? Let us know in the comments below!