In a clash for a place in the US Open final, 2011 and 2015 champion Novak Djokovic will meet Kei Nishikori, the runner-up in 2014. Djokovic has been in impressive form of late, since losing in the French Open quarterfinals he has won 24 of his last 26 matches, a run that has taken him to titles at Wimbledon and in Cincinnati. But Nishikori is always a dangerous opponent, and the Japanese has played some fine tennis himself this year. Who will come out on top?
Djokovic and Nishikori have met 16 times, including once before in a US Open semifinal. The good news for Nishikori is that he won that semifinal, 6-4 1-6 7-6 6-3. That was his second victory over Djokovic in their first three matches. The bad news is that it was his most recent. Djokovic has won 13 matches in a row against the Japanese, including in two Masters 1000 finals and three matches this year, in Madrid, 6-4 7-5, in Rome, 2-6 6-1 6-3, and in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, 6-3 3-6 6-2 6-2.
Path to the semifinals
Djokovic began his US Open campaign with a 6-3 3-6 6-4 6-0 victory over Marton Fucsovics on a brutally hot day. He then bested Tennys Sandgren 6-1 6-3 6-7 6-2 despite a poor third set performance. In the third round, he crushed Richard Gasquet 6-2 6-3 6-3 before battling past Joao Sousa 6-3 6-4 6-3 on another sweltering day. He struggled with the conditions again in the quarterfinals, but managed to overcome the tenacious John Millman, who beat Federer in the fourth round, 6-3 6-4 6-4.
Nishikori 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 match when trailing 2-6 4-5. Nishikori then finished strongly to oust 13th seed and 2017 quarterfinalist Diego Schwartzman 6-4 6-4 5-7 6-1. In the fourth round, he beat Philipp Kohlschreiber, 6-3 6-2 7-5 before gaining a measure of revenge over Marin Cilic with a 2-6 6-4 7-6 4-6 6-4 win in a rematch of the 2014 final won by the Croatian.
How do they match up?
Both Djokovic and Nishikori are excellent baseliners, equipped with solid, but powerful groundstrokes and are able to cover the court as well as anyone on the Tour. Indeed, there is precious little to separate them off the ground. The principle reason that Djokovic has taken such a commanding lead in their head-to-head is his superiority at the line. Both are great returners, with Nishikori having broken 29 times so far at the US Open and Djokovic 27. But Djokovic is a much better server.
He is able to rely on his serve to generate free points in a way that Nishikori is not. Against a returner of Djokovic’s quality, that vulnerability has been ruthlessly exposed. In the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, Nishikori made marginally more first serves and won more points behind his second serve than Djokovic. But whilst Djokovic won an excellent 85% of the points behind his first delivery, Nishikori managed just 59% behind his. Thus Djokovic broke seven times, Nishikori just three.
When Nishikori beat Djokovic in 2014, he did so on a swelteringly hot and humid day, the exact conditions Djokovic has struggled with this year. But unfortunately for the Japanese the temperature is set to drop substantially over the coming days and his chances will decrease with it. Though Djokovic’s advantages may be slight, they have been telling in the past and expect that to continue. Nishikori will trouble Djokovic, but the Serb will win. Djokovic in four.