Djokovic and Nishikori, who have met 16 times in the past, will renew their rivalry in the US Open semifinals on Friday. Djokovic comes into the match on the back of triumphs at Wimbledon and in Cincinnati where he completed the Career Golden Masters. He also scored a 13th straight win over Nishikori at the Championships in the quarterfinals. But, they have met in a US Open semifinal before and Nishikori was the victor. RealSport look at three keys to this contest.
1 Djokovic vs the conditions
It was on a sweltering hot and humid day at the US Open in 2014 that Nishikori brought Djokovic’s title-challenge crashing down with a 6-4 1-6 7-6 6-3 win in the last four. The conditions over the past fortnight have been much the same as they were on that day, and Djokovic has not enjoyed them. Against Marton Fucsovics in the first round, he was so nauseous due to the heat and humidity he had to ask for a sick bucket. Against Sousa, in his only other day match, he also looked ill at times.
He has even struggled during the night sessions. In his quarterfinal clash with Millman, he again suffered in the extreme humidity. At one point he nearly fell after a missed forehand and moments after that he was down on his haunches. Throughout the match Millman won the majority of the long rallies, rallies which Djokovic usually makes his own against even the very best. Evidence of just how testing the conditions were could be seen in the sweat-drenched attire of both.
Nishikori, in contrast, has dealt well with the humidity, impressively outlasting Cilic in five-sets in the heat of the day in the quarterfinals. And, with all due respect to Millman who delivered another incredible effort against Djokovic, Nishikori is better equipped to punish the world #6 than any of the opponents he has yet faced. Though the temperature is set to drop, the humidity isn’t, and if Djokovic cannot find a way to adapt, he could find himself in serious trouble.
2 Nishikori’s serve vs Djokovic’s return
Djokovic and Nishikori are well-matched off the ground. Djokovic has a slight edge in the weight of shot he can call upon, but it is not a substantial one. Djokovic is also a better returner than Nishikori, but he is also a better returner than everyone else and Nishikori is closer to him in that department than most. The Serb certainly does not hold a big enough advantage in either area to explain his 13-match winning streak against Nishikori, during which he has beaten him on all three surfaces.
But Djokovic does have a much better serve than Nishikori. Such is clear from their respective serving numbers in their past matches. At Wimbledon this year, for example, Nishikori actually made marginally more first serves than Djokovic and won 43% of the points behind his second serve compared with Djokovic who managed just 40%. But whilst he had a slight advantage in those areas, Djokovic carved out a much bigger one in first serve points won, with 85%. Nishikori won just 59%.
That was where the match was lost for Nishikori, who was broken seven times but broke only three times himself. In Rome and Madrid, earlier this year, Djokovic again won the battle between serve and return. In Rome, he won 67% of the points behind his first serve and 40% behind his second. Nishikori managed just 58% behind his first and 34% behind his second. In Madrid, whilst Djokovic won 63% of the points when he was at the line, Nishikori won only 58% on his own deal.
Those advantages that Djokovic has found have proven consistently decisive, and Nishikori will have to find a way to overcome them if he wants to win this match. When he did so in New York in 2014, he won the match. That day, though Djokovic won 80% of the points behind his first serve, compared to Nishikori’s 67%, the Japanese climbed all over his second serve, winning 63% of the points when Djokovic was forced to resort to it. If he can do the same again this year, he will give himself a chance.
3 Who can hit their backhand down the line better?
There is no doubt that Djokovic and Nishikori have the two best down the line backhands in the men’s game. It’s not an easy shot to hit, and in Djokovic’s case particularly, it is only attempted when feeling confident. But when they can find it regularly, it is a match-winner. That is because it is one of the most difficult shots to defend against as so many players like to cheat slightly towards their backhand corner in order to bring their forehand into play as much as possible.
Djokovic hit three excellent examples of the shot in a row, including one that clocked in at 82 mph, for clean winners to bring about the decisive break in his fourth-round match with Joao Sousa. Nishikori, meanwhile, caught Cilic out with his more than once in the quarterfinals. In a match likely to be exceptionally tight and feature many lengthy rallies, having the courage to strike decisively first may just be what separates the two men at its end.
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