'Clutch Kei' Upsets Murray At US Open
Japanese shows his expertise again in matches that go the distance
Kei Nishikori turned in his latest clutch performance on Wednesday, upsetting Andy Murray in the US Open quarter-finals to reach his second career Grand Slam semi-final in New York and his first since the 2014 US Open. In a back-and-forth contest that featured 17 breaks of serve, Nishikori was ultimately the more settled player during the match's tightest moments. He took the three-hour and 57-minute contest 1-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5.
“There were many up and downs, but I tried to [stay] calm. I think that's the most important thing I did today. Even though there were many up and downs I tried to stay tough,” Nishikori said.
The memorable performance is just the latest time “Clutch Kei” has stepped up in a decider. Heading into the match, Nishikori was already the most successful player in matches that had gone to a decider, according to the FedEx ATP Performance Zone. Nishikori owned a 96-26 record, giving him a winning percentage of 79 per cent, a higher percentage than anyone in the Open Era.
At no point on Wednesday was Nishikori more clutch than deep in the fifth set. With Murray serving at 5-all in the decider, Nishikori attacked a second serve and, as he did 39 times in the match, he approached the net. Nishikori lunged at Murray's passing shot and his forehand volley dropped in for an uncontested winner and the break. The sixth seed served out the set to reach the last four in Flushing Meadows.
“I saw some opportunities to come in today so I tried to be aggressive. I saw that's what I had to do, especially against Andy. He has great defense,” Nishikori said. “I don't know why I served and volleyed a lot today... but it was working. I think it was a great mix, serving and volleying and coming to the net."
The previous time Nishikori reached the US Open semi-finals he went on to contest for his maiden Grand Slam final before falling to Croatian Marin Cilic. In this year's semi-finals, Nishikori will face either Argentine Juan Martin del Potro or Swiss Stan Wawrinka, who play the late match in Arthur Ashe Stadium tonight. “Either way it's going to be tough. I'll try to stay calm and be ready,” Nishikori said.
Nishikori has a losing record against both of them: 2-3 against Wawrinka, and 0-4 against del Potro. But as he showed on Wednesday, the FedEx ATP Head2Head records mean little when Nishikori finds his stride in New York.
With the win, he improves to a 5-0 record against Top 10 players at the US Open. The victory also marks just the second time Nishikori has beaten the Brit during their nine FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings. In fact, before a five-set Davis Cup match earlier this season, Nishikori hadn't even taken a set off of Murray. The Scot started their rivalry by winning the first 12 sets.
The quarter-final match in a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium began the way their past series had gone as well. The 2012 US Open champion Murray controlled the first set and looked to be well on his way to a semi-final in New York for the fourth time. The 29 year old won more than half of his return points and especially attacked Nishikori's second serve, winning 8/10 second-serve points.
“Obviously I was in a good position up a set," Murray said.
But the sixth seed Nishikori bounced back in the second set, mixing in drop shots and more slice and refusing to simply rally against the No. 2 player in the Emirates ATP Rankings. The Shimane, Japan, native said he especially benefited from a brief chat with his coach Michael Chang, a former World No. 1 and a finalist at the 1996 US Open. The two talked as officials covered Arthur Ashe Stadium with its new roof at 3-all.
“After the rain delay I think I improved a little bit with my coach, and I tried to change my tennis and it started working better. I started to get my rhythm back,” Nishikori said.
In the third set, neither player could take control. The set featured five breaks of serve, and the most crucial came at 4-all on Nishikori's racquet. The 26 year old was serving 30/40, 4-4, when he tried another drop shot but floated it wide to give Murray the break. After a hold to start the fourth, it looked like Murray would, at last, seize control of the quarter-final contest and continue his stellar stretch into the semi-finals. Since losing in the Roland Garros final, the Brit had gone 26-1 and reached seven consecutive finals.
But Nishikori would not go away. At 1-0, during a break-point opportunity for Murray, a loud noise in Arthur Ashe Stadium caused a let. Murray looked flustered after the disturbance, and Nishikori took advantage. The 2014 US Open finalist reeled off six straight games to even the match and force a deciding fifth set.
In the decider, “Clutch Kei” showed how he has achieved a higher winning percentage in matches that go to a decider than anyone in the Open Era. Nishikori stayed calm. Even after he broke Murray for a 6-5 lead in the fifth, Nishikori didn't jump or shout with excitement; he simply walked to his chair and prepared to hold and reach the semi-finals at the US Open.