Kei Nishikori’s talent has never been in doubt but the 24-year-old Japanese proved in reaching the US Open final here that he has the durability and mental strength to go with his spectacular shot-making.
Nishikori produced one of the shocks of the year when he beat Novak Djokovic 6-4 1-6 7-6 6-3 to become the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam final. In Monday’s final here he will face Marin Cilic, who also upset the odds, beating Roger Federer 6-3 6-4 6-4.
In brutally hot conditions Nishikori lasted the distance better than Djokovic, despite having played five-set matches lasting more than four hours in both the previous rounds.
Although Djokovic is arguably the fittest man in tennis, the world No 1 can look vulnerable in extreme heat. In high humidity and temperatures which peaked at a scorching 36C, the 27-year-old Serb appeared to be struggling physically as early as the first set.
Nevertheless, the Wimbledon champion insisted afterwards that the conditions had been the same for both players. “It was not easy to play in these conditions, but he had spent more hours on the court [in previous rounds] so it’s no excuse,” Djokovic said.
Nishikori, who will meet the winner of the match between Roger Federer and Marin Cilic, agreed that the conditions had been “really tough”. He added: “It felt very heavy and humid, but I guess I love playing long matches. I just hope I can recover well for the final. Beating the world’s No 1 player was an amazing feeling today. I’m so happy.”
When Nishikori arrived at Nick Bollettieri’s academy in Florida at the age of 13 he could not speak a word of English and was terribly homesick, but his talent was soon evident. Injuries halted his progress initially, but earlier this year he became the first Japanese man to break into the world’s top 10. At 5ft 10in tall and weighing less than 11 stone, Nishikori makes up for any lack of power with his ball-striking ability and creativity.
Both men dropped their serve early in the first set before Nishikori made the crucial break to lead 4-3. The Japanese served out for the first set, but Djokovic’s response could not be faulted as he took the second in just half an hour.
The momentum was with Djokovic but Nishikori held firm, holding serve in a crucial third game of the third set that featured seven deuces. When Djokovic served at 3-4 Nishikori broke in thrilling fashion. A superb backhand pass brought up break point, which he converted with a forehand return winner.
Nishikori faltered in the next game, hitting a double fault on break point, and the set went to a tie-break. After Nishikori went 1-0 up with a service winner, the next 10 points were all decided by errors, Djokovic making most of them to lose it 7-4.
Djokovic was broken in the opening game of the fourth set, which Nishikori won in convincing fashion. Two successive aces took him to 5-3, then he broke serve for the fifth time, Djokovic missing a forehand on the second match point.
The occasion also appeared to move Martina Navratilova, who asked her girlfriend to marry her on the big screen in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Julia Lemigova said yes.Reuse content