In one of the more highly anticipated second-round matches at this year’s US Open, Japan’s world #21 Kei Nishikori, the runner-up in 2014, will face off against world #39 Gael Monfils of France, once ranked as high as 6th in the world. Nishikori and Monfils both endured injury misery last season, which was doubtless particularly frustrating for Monfils after his banner 2016. But who will take their place in the third round in New York?
Monfils and Nishikori have met on four occasions in the past, and though the Japanese has won three of them, it has been extremely difficult to separate the pair. Every match has gone to a deciding third set, and extraordinarily, the last three have all been decided in a final set tiebreaker. The last three matches were on hard courts and Nishikori won two of them, but Monfils won the most recent, so the signs are that this one will go down to the wire.
Path to the second round
Nishikori blitzed through the first round without too much trouble. He came up against world #50 Maximilian Marterer, who impressed in reaching the fourth round at the French Open earlier this year, but has shown little of the same aptitude for hard court tennis that he showed on the clay. Nishikori was able to dispose of the big German in a little over an hour and a half, running out victorious in straight sets, 6-2 6-2 6-3.
Monfils was challenged early against world #149 Facundo Bagnis, but recovered to motor through the final two sets in no time. He won the first in a tiebreaker before dropping the second, but after that he didn’t lose a game, racing through the third and fourth sets in a total of 46 minutes to win 7-6 3-6 6-0 6-0. Bagnis proved his worst enemy, wilting in the heat and struggling to find the court as the match rapidly moved to its conclusion.
How do they match up?
Nishikori is an extremely well-rounded all-court player, and has very few weaknesses. He is an excellent defender, but his offensive game is powerful, at times unexpectedly so, and he is comfortable stepping in and dictating with his forehand. He is also a terrific returner with only Djokovic and Murray of his contemporaries superior to him in that regard. But his serve can be a weakness, particularly against the more aggressive returners.
The most notable part of Monfils' game is his incredible athleticism, which he has relied on throughout his career. Often, this athleticism enables him to turn defense into offence in a single, powerful stroke, with his forehands at times reaching speeds of 120mph. But he is more comfortable playing defensively from beyond the baseline. When he does choose to go on the attack, his tennis becomes high-risk high-reward.
This match looks to be a close one on paper. Past results alone suggest that very little separates these two players, and it is difficult to see either carving out many leads in this contest. Expect a match with ebbs and flows throughout, with both players struggling to hit through their opponent thanks to their excellent defence. But, Nishikori's greater mental strength should aid his cause and expect him to get the job done in five arduous sets.