Kei Hopes To Hit Rewind Against Novak
“I forgot about it,” Nishikori said on Wednesday, smiling. “I always have good memories here. It was a tough battle against Novak. Yeah, for sure it's going to give me good confidence, even though I didn't remember. Maybe I will try to watch the match again, if he wins, and get more confidence.”
In the championship match, which lasted just one hour and 54 minutes, Marin Cilic cruised past the Japanese to lift his maiden major trophy. But now, it’s time to press rewind. Nishikori will try to upset Djokovic in another US Open semi-final. Will the script remain the same?
First thing’s first — the circumstances are different. Nishikori is no longer on the rise, but on the mend. The 28-year-old missed this tournament last year due to a right wrist injury, and he’d start his 2018 campaign by playing two ATP Challenger Tour events.
But Nishikori is not satisfied having reached one major final and climbing as high as No. 4 in the ATP Rankings. While he’s not putting as much pressure on himself before his injury, he is ambitious. Nishikori doesn’t want to settle for making the semi-finals at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert worked with the Japanese from December of 2010 through the 2011 season, and he says he was a little bit surprised when he asked Nishikori about his goals seven years ago.
“I wasn’t sure. But it was to be Top 3 in the world, to win Slams, to compete in Slams,” Gilbert said. “Okay, sometimes you’re not sure and your people say it, but you don’t really believe it. But I think he really believed in it and expected it.”
And perhaps it is that belief that has aided his return to form. First it was a runner-up showing in Monte-Carlo, then his first quarter-final at Wimbledon, and now, after avenging the Cilic loss by ousting the Croatian on Wednesday, he has earned a spot in the US Open semi-finals.
“It’s almost like he willed that win. It was perseverance. It wasn’t pretty. It was brilliant at some times. But the biggest thing in tennis, they said the four most valuable words: game, set, match, Nishikori,” Gilbert said of Nishikori’s victory against Cilic. “That match had like seven, if it was wrestling, it would be reversals. He found a way to win the last point and that’s the only thing that matters in these majors.”
Nishikori didn’t have the best preparation for the US Open, losing three of four matches heading into the final Grand Slam of the year. But that hasn’t stopped him from battling match-in and match-out and, in the crucial moments, being unafraid of taking control and seizing the moment.
“I felt once we were getting into the rallies he was slightly more consistent, and he had in, most of the rallies — not most of them, but maybe 60 per cent of the rallies — that he was the one that was dictating and creating chances,” Cilic said. “I felt that once he had the ball in the middle of the court, he was controlling and playing well what he's doing usually well.
“He's playing really well. He's in the semis, and with these kind of conditions, I think he dealt with it quite good today… I think for him is definitely good challenge coming back to the semis and creating another opportunity. I felt that he was hitting the ball really clean, really well, as he usually does.”
And the scary thing for the remaining field, is that Nishikori did not feel he was at his best against Cilic, who had made two of the past five Slam finals. “It wasn't easy, and I didn't feel like I was playing [my] best tennis today, but [I] fought through somehow and [that] gives me big confidence playing semis [in the] next round,” he said.
Nishikori has shown an even higher level this tournament, which is impressive considering he defeated Cilic. The No. 21 seed dominated veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber in the fourth round, a match that Gilbert commentated on.
“I thought he played excellent. He played great in that match,” Gilbert said. “The amazing thing about tennis is sometimes you don’t have to be great to win. Sometimes you can just be ordinary, but you’ve got to win. I don’t think he played that well today, but more importantly, sometimes you can play really well and lose. They said game, set, match, Nishikori. He’s moving on.“
There’s no doubting that Nishikori’s wrist injury was a significant hurdle to leap over. Missing the end of the 2017 season following Montreal, he’d eventually drop to World No. 39 this April, his lowest placement in the rankings since he was 21 years old. But now, Nishikori is working back toward his peak again and into contention for a spot at the Nitto ATP Finals in November.
“In tennis, if you don’t get better, you get worse. And he’s been getting better. He’s had lots of injuries to deal with. But all you can do sometimes is ask yourself and put yourself in the position,” Gilbert said. “He’s put himself in position and now… he’s just got to play the opponent and not the situation.”
All Nishikori has to do is check out video of the last time he played Djokovic in Arthur Ashe Stadium. While he may or may not remember it, the film doesn’t lie: Nishikori’s done it before, and there’s no reason he can’t do it again.