The first sentence of Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities begins, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” That has certainly been the case for Taro Daniel over the past four months.
The Japanese star is playing some of the best tennis of his life. In Acapulco, he qualified and reached the quarter-finals behind a win against World No. 4 Casper Ruud, the best victory of his career by Pepperstone ATP Ranking. At Indian Wells, Daniel is into the third round following an upset of former World No. 6 Matteo Berrettini.
“What’s really big with this week and last week is that I know what I did in order to have the biggest chance to win, especially with Casper and Matteo,” Daniel told ATPTour.com. “A few years ago when I beat Djokovic here, I didn’t really know why [or] how I beat him. It just felt like he wasn’t playing that well and I got some balls back and I took the chance. But consciously I didn’t know. [It was] like, ‘Oh, what happened?’
“Today, last week, I know at certain moments I pushed back, I was able to fight back tennis-wise, mentally. Those parts are definitely the biggest growth I feel in myself.”
That clarity has come after a period of tribulation. On 31 October last year, Daniel’s mother, Yasue, passed away. Taro wrote a touching social media post to pay tribute to her in the immediate aftermath.
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Yasue had been ill for two years, but her final few months “went very fast” according to Daniel.
“It’s amazing, even the fittest people can deteriorate very, very quickly and that was something very crazy to see because my mom was incredibly healthy, fit and strong,” Daniel said of his mother’s undisclosed illness. “She traveled the world a lot and it [was] crazy the last few months.”
Daniel was happy that his entire family was able to be together with the family’s matriarch in her final days. After her memorial, he took an extended offseason.
“I took almost the entirety of November off just to take care of the logistics, go to Japan, stuff like that. In the offseason I struggled quite a bit because I was working really hard, but then I just couldn’t believe I was going to go to Australia to play tournaments,” Daniel said. “I enjoyed working in the gym and everything, but I couldn’t see myself competing.”
It became tougher when Daniel lost to World No. 470 Ajeet Rai in qualifying for Auckland in the second week of the new season. The weather caused matches to be moved to a lightning-quick indoor hard court, and Daniel fell in three sets.
“That really kind of took a lot out of me and I was even thinking of taking time off from tennis right before Melbourne started,” Daniel said. “Those couple of months were quite difficult. That’s when all the points were coming off, my motivation to compete was not quite there. I didn’t know what to do.”
But the former World No. 64 continued on and played for his country in Davis Cup action after the Australian Open, which helped turn things around. The problem was that after Japan’s victory against Poland, he contracted the flu (he tested negative for Covid-19).
“I was in bed for five days [in Dallas], and that hasn’t happened in years. When I got the flu the last time, I was just in bed for one or two days and it was fine. But this time it really took it out of me,” Daniel said. “I was disappointed because of course playing a main draw of an [ATP] 250, I’ve done it many times, but I still don’t want to miss that chance, especially because I was playing pretty well so I felt like, ‘Oh man, what if my ranking starts going down?’
“Those thoughts start coming in when you’re sick and alone in the room.”
The first day, he slept nearly the entire day and barely ate. The next couple of days Daniel was able to eat more. But increasingly the anxiety built and as he struggled to enjoy quality sleep, nightmares trickled in.
But thankfully for Daniel, he physically recovered well. Following a lopsided loss against in-form American Mackenzie McDonald in Delray Beach, the Japanese player caught fire and is now set to face 2021 Indian Wells champion Cameron Norrie in the third round. It would have been understandable — if not expected — if Daniel struggled for longer after his mother’s passing.
“You just accept that you are going to think about it,” Daniel said.
He added: “I don’t know if the deceased look over tennis. I think they’re way beyond tennis or anything. But definitely that was also a great part of my growth for sure, because it was of course very difficult.”
But Daniel has also learned to have a positive outlook. The World No. 103 is not only playing well on court — he is up to No. 96 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings — but relishing his time off it. His father, Paul, is in Indian Wells, as are several other people who have played a critical role in Daniel’s career, including a coach from the Japanese Tennis Association, a physio he has used on and off for years, and Sven Groenefeld, his former coach, who remains an advisor.
“Actually the last time [my father] was at a tournament was here last year and my mom was here as well,” Daniel said. “It’s been a very tough year, especially for him. It’s been for all of us, but especially for him because he had to take care of her a lot. I think it’s great for him to come out here and have this great week with all of us together.”