Saturday September 6th, 2014

NEW YORK -- No. 11 Kei Nishikori of Japan became the first Asian man to make a Grand Slam final when he stunned No. 1 Novak Djokovic 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3 in the U.S. Open semifinals on Saturday. With a win over Stan Wawrinka on Wednesday, Nishikori, 24, became the first Asian man to reach a Slam semifinal in over 80 years. The win over Djokovic was his third consecutive win over a top five seed, having beaten fifth seed Milos Raonic in five sets in the fourth round and third seed and Australian Open champion Wawrinka in five sets in the quarterfinals. Nishikori's run is even more surprising given the pre-tournament doubts surrounding his participation. He skipped the two ATP Masters 1000 events over the North American hard court summer due to a foot injury. He had a cyst removed from his foot just weeks before the the tournament began. With just three hard court matches under his belt and an injury that had him worried when he took the court for his first match, Nishikori has now made history. He will play either Roger Federer or Marin Cilic in the final. 

Thoughts on Special Kei's big win:

Nishikori's game matches up with the best: Nishikori came into this tournament with a win over Federer this year in Miami. He's beaten Andy Murray and won his last meeting against Djokovic in 2011. In the spring he led Rafael Nadal a set and a break in the Madrid Open final before having to retire with a back injury. He owns the highest-ranked man of his generation, 23-year-old Milos Raonic, holding a 3-1 record in their head-to-head. He had already proven how dangerous he is on the ATP World Tour, but his success at the majors was limited. The thought was he was too physically fragile and mentally weak to come through in a best-of-five format. In a game of size and strength, the 5-foot-10 Nishikori was supposed to be too small to stand with the hitters. That's all changed this year.

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It all started with his decision to bring on Michael Chang, who convinced Nishikori he belongs and taught him how to believe. The change was immediately apparent at the Australian Open, when he pushed then No. 1 Nadal 7-6(3), 7-5, 7-6(3) in the fourth round. It was a straight set loss but Nishikori walked away from that match believing he could have won. A month later he won his first title of the year at a small ATP tournament in Memphis. A few weeks later he beat both No. 5 David Ferrer and Federer to advance to the Sony Open semifinal. But his physicality came under question again, as he was forced to withdraw before he was set to play Djokovic in that semifinal. He rebounded to become the first Japanese man to win an ATP clay court title at the Barcelona Open. 

Everything other than his health has been clicking for Nishikori this season and it somehow came together in New York. His all-court game, a combination of speed and precision, was on full display against Djokovic. The hot and humid conditions were stifling and Nishikori came in on the heels of back-to-back five setters, yet he completely outplayed Djokovic. He was the one who looked undisturbed by the enormity of the occasion. Djokovic was never able to elevate his game to match Nishikori's focused game plan. "I don't want to talk about conditions," a disappointed Djokovic said after the match on Saturday. "It's same for both of us. I think he just played better in these conditions than I did. I just wasn't managing to go through the ball in the court. I wasn't in the balance. Unforced errors. Even when the ball gets back to his part of the court it's pretty short; he takes advantage of it. On the other side I didn't."

The forehand has been key for Kei: The backhand and movement have always been solid for Nishikori but he's turned his forehand into a weapon. He can hit it flat and can use spin to get placement to open up the court. Of his 37 winners in the match, 13 were off the forehand side, the same number as on his stronger backhand wing. Of his 34 unforced errors, 15 came off the forehand and 14 came off his backhand. Those numbers used to be skewed against his forehand.

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Disappointment for Djokovic: This was a flat performance from the Serb, which was surprising given how well he had been playing throughout the tournament. He offered no real explanations after the match, but watching Djokovic play without a decisive game plan was a shock. Nishikori's defense can shrink the court, but Djokovic knows how to dismantle that type of defense. He's seen it from the likes of Nadal and Murray all the time. It was key for him to find a way to break Nishikori's serve when it mattered the most, but he played a poor tiebreak to fall behind two sets to love and then gave up the early break in the fourth set. Given his return prowess, the conventional wisdom was that Djokovic would get a look to get that break back -- and he did. With Nishikori serving to consolidate the break at 1-0, he fell behind 0-40. Djokovic couldn't convert a single one of those three break points and Nishikori went on to hold. He did not face a break point for the rest of the match. "Other than that second set my game today was not even close to what I wanted it to be," he said. "A lot of unforced errors, a lot of short balls. Just wasn't myself."

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