In the latest instalment of a rivalry that, though perhaps a little one-sided, has produced some thrilling matches, 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic takes on Kei Nishikori for a place in the last four at Wimbledon. Djokovic hasn’t reached a Grand Slam semifinal since losing in the final in New York in 2016, but he looks close to returning to his Slam-winning best. But he will be well aware of the dangers posed by Nishikori, long a top ten stalwart. Who will come out on top?
Djokovic and Nishikori have met 15 times in a head-to-head the Serbian has dominated. Nishikori made a good start, winning two of their first three matches, including in the US Open semifinal in 2014. But since that memorable win, he has lost 12 on the bounce to Djokovic, including two Masters finals in 2016 in Miami and Toronto. They have met twice so far this year, with both matches coming during the clay court swing. Djokovic won the first 7-5 6-4 in Madrid before taking a thriller in Rome 2-6 6-1 6-3.
Path to the quarterfinals
Djokovic began his Wimbledon campaign with a 6-3 6-1 6-2 win over Australian Open quarterfinalist Tennys Sandgren. He backed that up with an equally comfortable victory over Horacio Zeballos, beating the Argentine 6-1 6-2 6-3 to return to the third round. He backed that up by knocking out British #1 Kyle Edmund from a set down 4-6 6-3 6-2 6-4 much to the chagrin of the Centre Court crowd. The Serbian then returned to the Wimbledon quarterfinals by beating Karen Khachanov 6-4 6-2 6-2.
Nishikori’s Championships began with a four-set win over world #198 Christian Harrison of the USA, with the Japanese star advancing 6-2 4-6 7-6 6-2. He then recovered from dropping the first set against 2011 quarterfinalist Bernard Tomic to win 2-6 6-3 7-6 7-5. That was followed by his most comfortable win of the tournament so far, a 6-1 7-6 6-4 triumph over 15th seed Nick Kyrgios. Nishikori then reached the last eight by beating qualifier Ernests Gulbis 4-6 7-6 7-6 6-1.
How do they match up?
Both Nishikori and Djokovic are formidable baseliners. Indeed, there are many similarities between the two, with both men equipped with excellent and versatile two-handed backhands and accurate forehands. Whilst Djokovic, along with Nadal, revolutionised the defensive side of the game, particularly through his ability to defend out of the corners, Nishikori is arguably foremost amongst his disciples. Expect both to use the backhand down the line to open up the court.
Perhaps the one area where Djokovic has a clear advantage is when serving and returning. Djokovic has won at least 78% of the points behind his first serve, and made at least 72% of them, but no opponent has yet won more than 65% of the points behind their first serve against him. The big serving Khachanov won just 59% of the points behind his first serve, and was punished on second serves, losing the 61% of the points behind it. With Nishikori’s only weakness his serve, he could be in trouble.
Djokovic has consistently been able to get the better of Nishikori because, to put it simply, he has been able to beat Nishikori at his own game. And having gotten the better of the Japanese in both Madrid and Rome on clay already this year, a surface the Japanese is more comfortable on than grass, it seems hard to find reasons why he will not do the same at Wimbledon. Particularly with Nishikori’s fitness uncertain. Djokovic in four.