By Jane Voigt
September 6, 2014 — Kei Nishikori doesn’t have records that come close to the Big Four, but he’s on his way.
With his upset of the number-one seed Novak Djokovic, Nishikori firmly established himself on the big stage as a player with a champion’s mind and execution, in the first semifinal of the day. He believes and backs up his beliefs with the cunning of a shark on the hunt.
“I was a little bit tight in [my] first semifinal in Grand Slam, but it was an amazing feeling beating the number-one player,” Kei told CBS on court. “I hope it’s big news in Japan. I feel the support from Japan. It’s four o’clock in the morning, but hope they are watching.”
Nishikori became the first Japanese man in 81 years to play in a Grand Slam semifinal today, defeating the odds-on favorite Djokovic, 64 16 76(4) 63.
The win will catapult Nishikori to a provisional ranking of No. 5 in the world, from his current No. 10, if he wins the title. Otherwise, he’ll move up to No. 8.
Djokovic was playing in his eighth consecutive U.S. Open semifinal in his 10th appearance. He won the title once in 2011, losing in the finals of 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2013. Since 2007, he is 7-7 in Grand Slam finals.
Today, he showed his vulnerabilities against a man who took advantage of them as heat, humidity, and swirling winds made the match difficult for both.
Djokovic was unsettled through the first set, screaming at the crowds at least once. His emotional imbalance and confused shot selection only made fans stand behind the underdog, Kei. This lack of fan base in New York has haunted Djokovic for years, ever since he disrespected American Andy Roddick after a late night win.
Serving percentages were off for Djokovic, too, especially on points won on his second serve: 25% in first set; 73% in second; 36% in third; and 11% in the fourth set. Although both ended with a positive winner/unforced error ratio, Djokovic was uncharacteristically off balance throughout the match. His brilliant footwork and anticipation were awry. In contrast, Nishikori converted 71% of breakpoint chances … a stunning rate against the world’s number one.
Djokovic has had trouble playing in conditions like the ones today on Arthur Ashe. He had no excuses, though, telling the press, “It was not easy to play in these conditions, but also he had more hours spent on court. So it’s no excuse.”
Djokovic admitted that his strokes, “just weren’t there,” throughout the match. However, he also knew Nishikori’s had improved.
“He’s wasn’t using his forehand as well as he does now,” Djokovic said about Nishikori. “His backhand is very solid. One of the best double-handed backhands from all over the court. Really aggressive. He’s very quick, so he gets a lot of balls back. Uses every short ball to attack. I think now he’s all-around player”
Nishikori’s health has been a storyline that has swirled around his career. These two were scheduled to play in the semifinals of Miami in March when Kei withdrew with an injury, giving Novak a walkover to the final. (Later that day, Tomas Berdych withdrew with stomach problems, giving Rafael Nadal a walkover to the final.)
Nishikori has retired or withdrawn from at least 12 matches, since 2008. His route to this semifinal was a long one. He spent 13.5 hours on court while Djokovic was out there only 10 hours, not losing a set until today. But Nishikori has begun to believe. Coupled with help from his new coach Michael Chang, Kei’s raw talents have blossomed.
Kei has defeated Milos Raonic (No. 5), Stan Wawrinka (No. 3) and now Novak Djokovic this fortnight. In Miami he stunned Roger Federer in the quarterfinals and holds a winning record over the Swiss star. Kei also took out David Ferrer and Grigor Dimitrov there. He won Barcelona, a trophy owned by Rafael Nadal 8 times over. In Madrid, he beat Raonic and Ferrer, again, and came a few games away from upsetting Nadal in the final but retired with a back injury. Uncle Toni, Nadal’s coach, admitted his nephew would have lost that match had Nishikori been healthy.
Michael Chang knows defeat. He was also one of the most tenacious players during his career. After each round Chang has reminded Nishikori, “Great effort, but the tournament is not over yet,” the New York Times reported. The message has been heeded. If only Kei has enough in his tank for one last go, the biggest match of his life, on the biggest stage in tennis, Monday at 5 P.M.
It will be the first time since 2005 that one of the Big Four — Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray — will not make a run for the title. They have won all but two over the last nine years.