NEW YORK – Between U.S. Open semifinalists Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori and Gael Monfils, there are 14 Grand Slam titles. Novak Djokovic has won 12 of them.
The World No. 1 could win his 13th on Sunday. But first he’ll have to get through Monfils, who’s playing in just the second Slam semifinal of his career. In the following match, Wawrinka—already with two Slam titles of his own—will face Nishikori.
Here are a few things to watch for in Friday’s U.S. Open semifinals, which start at 3 p.m. ET.
Both Monfils, Djokovic are ready for physical battle
Monfils has been stellar this U.S. Open. Through five matches, he hasn’t dropped a set. He has still treated us to the Monfils showmanship we all love—the trick shots, leaping smashes and amusing moments—but he’s also been highly efficient with his tennis. And it’s crucial for any player going up against Djokovic to be fresh.
Unfortunately for Monfils, his opponent comes in with little mileage, as Djokovic’s path to the semifinals involved one walkover, one first–set retirement and one third–set retirement. Of the two full matches Djokovic has played this tournament, only one went four sets—in the other, Djokovic breezed by in straight sets.
“In this stage of the season, considering some physical issues I have had in the last month, month and a half, this was the scenario that I needed and I wished for. I got a lot of days off and recovered my body,” Djokovic said after his quarterfinal. “Right now, I’m feeling very close to the peak. That's the position where I want to be.”
Djokovic has been nursing a seemingly minor issue in his arm throughout the tournament, and he’s been lucky to have extra rest. He’ll be fresh on Friday—and luckily Monfils should be fully fit as well. The question is whether Monfils can push Djokovic beyond three sets.
Could Djokovic face consequences for not playing full matches?
Djokovic seems pleased that he’s lucked into some extra rest this tournament, but could it have a downside? Djokovic might be well rested, but he hasn’t been able to get into a rhythm. Monfils, meanwhile, is playing better tennis now than at any time in recent memory.
Djokovic’s form isn’t really a concern. He looked fantastic against Kyle Edmund, and he was laying it on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga before Tsonga retired. But it’s something to keep an eye on.
Monfils aims for first win against Djokovic
Here’s a stat: In 12 attempts, Monfils has never beaten Djokovic. Djokovic is 3–0 against Monfils in Slams, including a 2005 first-round meeting that saw Djokovic win in five sets. Both players were 18 at the time.
I doubt many fans will complain if we replicate the intensity of that match—with the stakes just a tad higher.
No separating Nishikori, Wawrinka
Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori have only played five times over their careers, with Wawrinka winning three of those matches. If history is any guide, expect a tight match in Friday’s semifinal.
In their only match this year, Nishikori beat Djokovic at the Rogers Cup in straight sets. But in their last Slam meeting, Wawrinka topped Nishikori in straights at the Australian Open.
The most memorable match between Nishikori and Wawrinka, of course, was in Flushing. In 2014, on his way to an appearance in the final, Nishikori upset Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, beating him in five gripping sets.
Nishikori’s quarterfinal upset of Andy Murray was probably the second-biggest win of his career, trailing only his upset of Djokovic at the 2014 U.S. Open. But after a five-set marathon like that, it might be tough for Nishikori to recover against Wawrinka, who advanced by beating Juan Martin del Potro in a comparatively less intense four sets.
Another factor that might favor Wawrinka if the match goes five: He’s 9-6 in his career in U.S. Open matches that go to a decider.
As always, Stan’s backhand is critical
Wawrinka plays his best tennis when his trademark one-handed backhand is on. And against del Potro, it was firing from all cylinders. In the semifinals, Wawrinka won’t have the luxury of facing a player who favors his forehand as much as del Potro, but if Wawrinka starts running Nishikori around the court with his powerful backhand, watch out.
Nishikori’s stellar record in Flushing Meadows
Kei Nishikori has never lost to a top 10 opponent at the U.S. Open. He’s 5–0 over his career, including his quarterfinal victory over No. 2 Andy Murray. He’s 3–11 against Top 10 competition at other Grand Slams.
No Roger, Rafa or Andy
Here’s who you won’t be watching on Friday: three of the four top players of this generation. For the first time since the 2004 French Open, neither Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal nor Murray will play in the semifinals of a Grand Slam. That’s a truly staggering run. If you’re in search of a familiar face, look no further than Djokovic, who has made the semifinals in 24 of the last 26 Slams.