(Photo credit: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard)
In a matchup that most will be more used to seeing at the business end of a tournament, two-time Madrid Open champion Novak Djokovic takes on former finalist Kei Nishikori. For Djokovic, who last won the title in Madrid in 2016, it has been a difficult period, stretching back nearly two years. Injuries and issues with form and focus have seen him slide down the rankings. Nishikori has had his fair share of struggles as well, but did recently make the Monte Carlo final. Who will win this one?
Djokovic and Nishikori have met 13 times on Tour so far in a head-to-head that Djokovic leads 11 matches to 2. It was the Serb who won their first match, defeating Nishikori eight years ago in the Roland Garros second round in straight sets, 6-1 6-4 6-4. Nishikori had his revenge a year later in Basel, defeating the-then top ranked Djokovic in the Basel semifinals in three sets. He scored another big win three years later in New York in the US Open semifinals, defeating Djokovic 6-4 1-6 7-6 6-3.
Since then, however, Nishikori has found Djokovic an impossible nut to crack. The Serbian has won their past nine meetings, including twice in Masters 1000 finals in 2016 in Miami and Toronto. They have met three times on clay during that run, in Rome in 2016 in the quarterfinals where Djokovic won 6-3 3-6 6-1, in the semifinals in Madrid in 2016, where Djokovic won 6-3 7-6 and most recently in Rome in the semifinals in 2016, when Djokovic won in three, 2-6 6-4 7-6.
Last time out
Djokovic played in Barcelona for the first time in over a decade this year. However, his trip to Catalonia, doubtless intended as a chance to get some much needed match wins under his belt, didn’t go to plan. Drawn against the dangerous Martin Klizan in the first round Djokovic found himself heading for an early exit, losing 2-6 6-1 3-6. Though he played an impressive second set, overall the match proved to be just another illustration of how far Djokovic has to go if he wants to get back to the top.
Nishikori also made the trip to Barcelona and also exited in the first round, withdrawing when trailing by a set to Guillermo Garcia Lopez. The Japanese was doubtless feeling the effects of his impressive weak in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin where he won five matches, four of which went the distance, en route to the Monte Carlo Masters final. There he was dismissed by Nadal, but everyone to have played Nadal on clay this year has shared that fate.
How do they match up?
At their best, Djokovic and Nishikori are amongst the best baseliners in the modern game. Both have supremely effective groundstrokes, with neither the forehand nor backhand being an obvious weakness. But recently, Djokovic hasn’t been able to find his best. In fact, he has been a long way off it. His backhand, usually his most reliable shot, has been wayward and has been costing the Serbian far too many unforced errors.
Nishikori will doubtless look to take advantage of that. The Japanese’s impressive technique allows him the easy power typically reserved for taller men. His most potent weapon is his forehand, with which he typically he looks to dictate proceedings. However, his backhand is also a formidable weapon. Nishikori has taken a page from Djokovic’s book in using it down the line to good effect. One weakness that has been exploited in previous matches by Djokovic is his serve. Nishikori will be aware of the importance of not allowing Djokovic too many second serves.
Nishikori may have lost the last nine against Djokovic, but he is rightly the heavy favourite going into this one. Nishikori was impressive in Monte Carlo, whilst Djokovic still looks along way from the player he once was. In his current form, it seems unlikely that he will be able to summon a performance of the quality required to defeat Nishikori. Expect the Japanese world #20 to win comfortably in straight sets.