In a clash between the coming generation and the generation that arguably never was, world number 8 Alexander Zverev takes on Japan’s Kei Nishikori, the world’s 9th best. Both are players of the highest quality, and likely entrants at the World Tour Finals in November. They are also excellent on hard courts, and Zverev appears to be improving as each week passes. An excellent match should await on Stadium Court in Washington.
It will be a first tour meeting between the two. Zverev, still just 20, has not yet been on tour long enough to establish many rivalries and only broke into the top 10 this year. None the less, he does possess some experience that the relative veteran Nishikori, 27, does not have. Namely, Zverev has won a Masters 1000 event, something that Nishikori, three times a finalist at that level, is yet to achieve. However, the Japanese does not want for experience, he is seven times a Grand Slam quarterfinalist and reached the final at the US Open back in 2014 (l to Cilic). He has also won 11 titles on the tour, compared with Zverev’s 4, which includes a victory in Washington in 2015 defeating Isner in the final. Still, there is little chance of the occasion overawing either player.
Path to the semifinal
Zverev enjoyed a first round bye as the fifth seed, but his second round match against Jordan Thompson of Australia proved to be anything but straightforward. Thompson stole a march on Zverev and took the first set 6 games to 4. Zverev rebounded in the second, winning it 6-3, to take the match into a decider. He went an early break up and looked to have the match under control. But Thompson broke back and fought into a tiebreak. It was a nervy affair, but it was Zverev who prevailed after Thompson had double faulted to hand the German a match point. His progress thereafter eased, overcoming the aptly named Tennys Sandgren 7-5 7-5 to reach the quarters. There he faced fellow Next Gen contender Daniil Medvedev. A tight match was predicted, but Zverev had too much throughout and came through comfortably 6-2 6-4 to reach the semifinals.
Kei Nishikori’s path could hardly have been harder. Like Zverev he received a bye into the second round, and like Zverev he faced an early test, against Donald Young. The Japanese took the first set 6-3, but Young, backed by the home crowd stormed back to level. A tight decider ensued, and it was settled in a tiebreak. There Nishikori’s quality told as he squeaked through 7 points to 5. His third round match against Juan Martin Del Potro, which did not begin until gone 12 am was on paper a tough test. But the popular Argentinian struggled with a neck problem throughout, and his sledgehammer forehand was not at its potent best. Nishikori survived a scare when Del Potro broke back late in the second set, to break again and seal a 6-4 7-5 victory.
But his greatest challenge was yet to come. It arrived in the shape of his quarterfinal opponent Tommy Paul, whose play throughout the week had belied his ranking of 225th in the world. Paul is a former Roland Garros junior champion, and that showed in his excellent court coverage and consistent baseline play. Having already taken out Lucas Pouille and Gilles Muller, Paul had Nishikori in his sights for a third upset. He came perilously close.
After taking the first 6-3 he had three match points in the second set. The first Nishikori saved with some truly scintillating play, ending the point with a magnificent drop shot. The other two Paul could have done little more with, but Nishikori survived. He took the set when Paul sent a forehand long down set point in the tiebreak. Nishikori then broke early in the decider, and though Paul fought on valiantly, he could not retrieve it. Nishikori closed out the 3-6 7-6 6-4 thriller to reach the semifinals.
How do they match up?
Of the two Zverev is the big hitter. At 6 feet 6 inches he has a mighty first delivery and can drive the ball through the court off both wings. Nishikori, in contrast, is smaller in stature and lacks the easy power of the German. However, his movement is superb, and his forehand is a real weapon, whilst his backhand can be relied upon to keep him in rallies. Indeed, he defends out of the backhand corner better than anyone save Novak Djokovic. It will likely be a contest of attack vs defence. To win the match Zverev must hit hard to big targets. If Nishikori can force Zverev to aim for the lines regularly then he will be contesting another Washington final.
Nishikori is probably currently the better player, although only marginally, and Zverev has had the better season. But the match will most likely be decided in Zverev’s favour anyway, because of the long road Nishikori has taken to reach the semifinals. His late finish against Del Potro in the third round and the marathon match against Paul will surely leave him with too little in the tank to counter Zverev’s power. Particularly as the German will be comparatively rested and refreshed. Zverev in two.
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