LONDON — No. 1 Novak Djokovic will have a chance at his third consecutive title at the ATP World Tour Finals on Sunday after holding off No. 5 Kei Nishikori 6-1, 3-6, 6-0 in the semifinals. The win is Djokovic's 13th straight at the O2 Arena and extended his indoor win-streak to 31 matches over the course of the last three seasons. He will play either No. 2 Roger Federer or No. 4 Stan Wawrinka in the final. That Swiss derby takes place in the evening.
For 30 minutes, it looked like the match would be yet another straight set rout. Nishikori qualified for his first semifinals in his first appearance at the ATP Finals by virtue of going 2-1 in group play, notching wins over Andy Murray and David Ferrer. Djokovic had not lost a set going into the semifinals and had not lost more than three games in any of the six sets he's played. The Serb started quickly once again and was virtually unplayable in the 23-minute first set. He lost just two points on his serve and rarely missed a ball, giving Nishikori no openings or free points.
This is how good Nishikori had to play just to win a point in that first set:
Djokovic broke to start the second set after a sloppy service game from Nishikori. But that's when things got interesting. Djokovic failed to consolidate the break, double-faulting on break point, much to the delight of the crowd. In response to their cheers he threw up a sarcastic thumbs up and racket clap and wasn't the same for the rest of the set. He played with more tension through his strokes and as his level dropped, Nishikori got himself back into the match.
Nishikori's forehand began to fire and that stroke did most of the damage through the set. All seven of his groundstroke winners in the second set came off the forehand, as he was able to open up the court beautifully to hit winners into the open court. After breaking Djokovic to 5-3, Nishikori served out the set. It was the first set Djokovic had lost since losing to Federer in Shanghai last month.
When Nishikori hits is forehand this well, he can be unbeatable:
Full of confidence, Nishikori immediately earned two break points in the first game of the final set at 15-40, but he missed a regulation forehand down the line into the net on the first and then a backhand on the second. Djokovic would go on to hold and Nishikori never recovered.
"I was playing well," Nishikori said. "Even [the] first couple points in third set, I thought I had it. I think I started thinking too much about he's No. 1 player, Novak. I think I risked too much."
The tournament debutant, who has the best winning percentage in decisive sets in the Open Era (69-18), couldn't find his serve. He served at just 40 percent, won just one of eight points on second serve and double-faulted four times in the final frame. As Djokovic cleaned up his game — he hit four winners to just two unforced errors — Nishikori littered the stat sheet with 14 unforced errors, more than half of what he had for the whole match. All told, Djokovic finished with 14 winners 13 unforced errors, while Nishikori hit 18 winners to 25 unforced errors. Nishikori rued his missed opportunity to beat Djokovic for the second time this season.
"When he's playing well, I don't think anybody can stop him," Nishikori said. "But you see today, he got little bit tight in second set. If I could stay there [with a] little more focus, then I think I have some chances to beat him."
With Nishikori (who had a chance to overtake Wawrinka this week) losing, here's how the year-end ATP Top 10 will look:
- Novak Djokovic
- Roger Federer
- Rafael Nadal
- Stan Wawrinka
- Kei Nishikori
- Andy Murray
- Tomas Berdych
- Milos Raonic
- Marin Cilic
- David Ferrer