In the 15th instalment of what has proven to be one of the more intriguing rivalries of recent years, Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori face off for a place in the US Open semifinals. Cilic, who has reached two Grand Slam finals inside the last 18 months but crashed out early at Wimbledon, will be looking to put that disappointment behind him. Nishikori, meanwhile, endured a difficult 2017 due to injuries but has played some excellent tennis this year. Who will come out on top?
Cilic and Nishikori have clashed 14 times previously in a head-to-head the Japanese leads 8-6. But three of those matches have come at the US Open and in New York Cilic has had the better of it winning twice. Nishikori claimed the first victory, besting the Croatian 5-7 7-6 3-6 7-6 6-1 in the second round in 2010. Cilic had his revenge in the third round in 2012, winning 6-3 6-4 6-7 6-3 before beating Nishikori in the 2014 final 6-3 6-3 6-4 to claim his first and thus far only Major.
Path to the quarterfinals
Cilic began his campaign with a lucky escape when Marius Copil retired with a thigh injury trailing 5-7 1-6 1-1 having previously been 5-1 40-0 up. Hubert Hurkacz gave him no such trouble in the second round as Cilic crushed the Pole 6-2 6-0 6-0. But he then had to dig himself out of a hole against Alex De Minaur and survive some heroic resistance from the teenager who saved eight match points before falling to a 6-4 6-3 3-6 4-6 5-7 defeat. Cilic then dismissed 10th seed David Goffin 7-6 6-2 6-4.
Nishikori’s run through the draw has been rather less dramatic. He opened his tournament with a clinical 6-2 6-2 6-3 win over Germany’s Maximilian Marterer before Gael Monfils retired from their second-round clash down 2-6 4-5. Nishikori then overcame the resistance of 2017 quarterfinalist Diego Schwartzman in the third round to win 6-4 6-4 5-7 6-1. In the fourth round, he outclassed Philipp Kohlschreiber, who had upset Alexander Zverev in the previous round, 6-3 6-2 7-5.
How do they match up?
This match will be decided by how effectively Nishikori can stop Cilic deploying his big weapons. The Croatian has one of the best serves in the game and is tied for fifth place in the tournament ace race with 52. His forehand is also an excellent shot and the majority of the 166 winners he has hit so far in the tournament have come from that wing. Targeting his weaker backhand, especially in cross-court exchanges with his own excellent backhand, should be a tactical priority for Nishikori.
He will also be encouraged by the number of unforced errors Cilic has hit. In two of his three completed matches Cilic has hit more unforced errors than he has winners. That will be a concern for him against the tidy Nishikori. However, though the Japanese is very effective off the ground, his serve, particularly his second, is a serious weakness. Against Kohlschreiber he won just 42% of the points behind his second serve. Returning aggressively will almost certainly yield rewards for Cilic.
This match promises much. The aggressive hitting of Cilic should test Nishikori’s defensive qualities to the limit and the same is true in reverse. But where the advantage seems to lie with Nishikori is in his considerably greater consistency over the past week. Cilic has played some excellent ball, but he has also played some very poor tennis. And in a match likely to be as close as this one, consistency wins out nearly every time. Nishikori in five.