(Photo credit: REUTERS/Tony Gentile)
Novak Djokovic seems like he may be on the edge of a resurgence in the sport that he dominated for so long after reaching his first Tour-level quarterfinal since Wimbledon last year. Standing between him and the last four is another former top ten star looking to bounce back from injury troubles in the shape of Kei Nishikori. Both men have made progress in terms of the tennis they’re playing, but neither has quite had the standout result that would signal their return to the big time. But who will win this one?
Djokovic and Nishikori have had a long rivalry as befits two of the sport’s biggest names. It began eight years ago at the French Open in the second round when Djokovic bested a then-little known Nishikori, who was making his debut at Roland Garros. But it was Nishikori who won their next match, downing a weary-looking Djokovic at the backend of 2011 in Basel in the semifinals, recovering from dropping the first set impressively to win in three, 2-6 7-6 6-0.
The next time the two took to court it would be Nishikori who won, stunning Djokovic in the US Open semifinals in four sets to reach his first and thus far only Major final. Unfortunately for the Japanese, he hasn’t beaten Djokovic since. The Serbian has won their last 11 matches. That includes two victories in Masters 1000 finals in 2016 in Miami and Toronto, and two victories in Rome, in 2015 in the quarterfinals and in the semis a year later.
They met most recently a week ago in the first round in Madrid. Nishikori came into that match on the back of an impressive run to the final at the Monte Carlo Country Club, where he defeated two top five players back-to-back in Marin Cilic and Alexander Zverev. Nadal had proven too strong in the title match, however, and Djokovic was also able to get the better of Nishikori, winning a tight encounter 7-5 6-4, though he himself fell to Edmund in his next match.
Path to the quarterfinals
Djokovic, outside the top eight seeds in Rome for the first time in his career, began his tournament in the first round against Alexandr Dolgopolov. The Ukrainian has been ranked as high as 13th in the world, but plays his best tennis away from the clay and was dismissed by Djokovic 6-1 6-3. The four-time former champion backed that win up with another impressive victory, overcoming Nikoloz Basilashvili 6-2 6-4. He then defeated last year’s Monte Carlo Masters finalist Albert Ramos Vinolas 6-1 7-5, despite failing to serve it out at the first attempt.
Nishikori, unseeded, opened his Italian Open campaign with a hard-fought straight sets win over Feliciano Lopez of Spain, defeating the veteran left-hander 7-6 6-4. He then produced something of a Houdini act to defeat the third seeded Grigor Dimitrov. Despite losing the first set and trailing by a break in both the second and third sets, the Japanese emerged a 6-7 7-5 6-4 winner. He was rather more convincing in beating Kohlschreiber 6-1 6-2 in the third round.
How do they match up?
Both men’s stellar careers have been built on dominating matches from the baseline. Though not the biggest hitters in the game, at their best Djokovic and Nishikori are able to present a brick wall in defence and penetrating and accurate groundstrokes when on offence. Often, in fact, they have been able to do both simultaneously. Djokovic, particularly, excels in defending from the corners and he has been showing signs of rediscovering that singular ability so far this week.
He has also been striking his backhand, which though once his most reliable shot has been wayward since his comeback, with confidence. He will need it against Nishikori, who can hurt opponents from all-over the court. The Japanese’s favoured shot is his forehand, which he can use to devastating effect at times. However, his serve, especially his second delivery, is a weakness. Djokovic was quick to expose it in Madrid, and Nishikori will be aware of the importance of maintaining a high first serve percentage to avoid a repeat outcome.
Both Djokovic and Nishikori have played some sparkling tennis this week. For perhaps the first time since he was defeated at Wimbledon in 2016, a Djokovic victory looked certain when he took on Ramos Vinolas. Even when he failed to serve it out at the first time of asking. That is heartening indeed for the 12-time Slam champion. He has also been well-supported by the Italian crowd. That should be just enough to take him past Nishikori in three sets, although winning the first may prove vital in a contest that rests on a knife’s edge.