It was a first-round pairing that must have made both players groan when the draw was announced, but that's also the kind of match on which comebacks are built and careers may start to turn around.
By the time the shadows grew long on the still, sunny Monday afternoon at the Madrid Masters, Novak Djokovic had new reason to feel optimistic about his future while Kei Nishikori was reminded that there's no shortcut back from a wrist injury in the hand that swings the racket.
Djokovic won this opening-day battle of the wounded stars, 7-5, 6-4. It was, after a sputtering, tentative start by both men, a solid, well-played match that lasted nearly two hours. The result was decided by Djokovic service breaks late in each set.
"I was looking forward to have these kind of matches, looking to try to win these kind of matches," Djokovic told the press afterwards. "So that's why it was really a perfect scenario to start off the tournament. It's great. I couldn't ask for a better start."
It was the kind of win Djokovic, who was just 5-5 on the year coming into Madrid, desperately needs -- and not just to keep his head above water in the W-L department. Djokovic, currently ranked No. 12, is defending semifinal rankings points in Madrid. He can't afford to slip too much lower for seeding purposes with two Grand Slam events looming.
At times in the Caja Magica or "Magic Box," Djokovic looked like the punishing slugger of yore. He led with his chin, stepping into the court to seize control of points. He dictated with that windshield wiper forehand, crushed inside-out winners. He found some of those acute angles that once spiced up his basic game plan at his best. He was mobile and flexible, stretching and lunging, finding ways to produce stinging backhands from a contortionist's posture.
"I think I could play a little better, but I think he was playing good tennis today," Nishikori said in his press conference. "If something clicks for him, he's going to come back again to top-10 level."
It would almost surely take more than a simple click, as Djokovic fell far and hard. Starting in mid-2016, shortly after he completed his career Grand Slam at the French Open, Djokovic spiraled into a crisis that had repercussions in his private life as well as his career. The slump and elbow pain that ultimately caused him to pull out of the tour midway through an unsatisfying 2017 was the least of it.
It's too early to tell, but the solution to Djokovic's problems might have been staring him in the face. In May of 2017, he dismissed the entire support team that had created his success up to mid-2016. The key components in that original team were head coach Marian Vajda and trainer Gebhard Gritsch.
After experimenting with various other advisers, including Andre Agassi and recently retired pro Radek Stepanek, Djokovic reconnected with Vajda and Gritsch shortly after his dismal hard-court swing in North America this year.
"I'm happy to have Marian and G.G back in the box, back in my team, back in my life, so to say, on a daily, weekly basis," Djokovic said. "They know my game very well, but it's still a process. It will take some time. I haven't had too many of the matches like this, too many consecutive matches won. I'm still looking for that match play."
On Monday, it looked like he's going to find it. And soon.