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Men look to be semi-tough

Novak Djokovic has won seven Grand Slams including the US Open in 2011.
By Mark Preston
Saturday, September 6, 2014

Two men’s semifinals headline Day 13 of the 2014 US Open, as four of the game’s top talents now stand two matches away from standing alone. Two of today’s headliners figured to be factors on this day at the start of this event, both having been here many times before. The other two are something of a surprise, unexpected visitors who’ve elbowed their way into the penultimate round here for the first time in their respective careers. In one semifinal, top seed Novak Djokovic squares off with No, 10 seed Kei Nishikori; in the other, No. 2 seed Roger Federer battles Marin Cilic, seeded No. 14. When this Flushing fortnight began, we all eagerly envisioned the top and bottom lines of this draw intersecting. The question today is whether Nishikori and Cilic can apply their own brand of differential geometry to these lines and throw a curve into this year’s men’s final.

Djokovic has been spectacular to this point of the tournament, playing with a fire and a focus from Day 1 that suggested that nothing short of Day 15 would suffice. The men’s No. 1 has played like the best of the bunch, not dropping a set until his quarterfinal encounter with 2012 US Open champ Andy Murray. But after splitting sets with Murray in that match, the 27-year-old Serb swept through the next two, winning the match, 7-6, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4, to advance to his eighth consecutive US Open semifinal. In the decisive fourth set of that match, Djokovic won 88 percent of his first-serve points. The win was Djokovic’s 50th career US Open victory, making the seven-time Grand Slam singles champion just the seventh man in the Open era to post that many wins here. Winner here in 2011, Djokovic has brilliantly combined power and precision to this point; of the four semifinalists, he’s spent the least amount of time on court in getting here—a total of 10 hours, 5 minutes through five matches.

Contrast Djokovic’s time card with that of Nishikori, who has logged a total of 13 hours, 34 minutes in getting to his first career Slam semifinal—the first Japanese man to reach the semis of this tournament since Ichiya Kumagai accomplished the feat in 1918. This tournament’s marathon man, Nishikori’s fourth-round win over Milos Raonic played out over 4 hours, 19 minutes, and his quarterfinal victory over Stan Wawrinka lasted 4 hours, 15 minutes. Both of those big wins are testament not only to the Japanese star’s physical fitness, but also to his superb mental toughness. In gutting out the back-to-back five-setters, Nishikori simply refused to back down, moving brilliantly, returning exceptionally well and painting lines on cement like a highway worker. For a guy who doubted his chances of getting out of the first round here following foot surgery in early August, Nishikori has had a leg up on his competition this whole way and now stands one match away from running further into history.

Djokovic and Nishikori have met only twice before, each man owning a win over the other. But they’ve not gone head-to-head since 2011, so prior meetings hold very little present value. This should be a good test for Djokovic—probably a better test than he’d like. The top seed may have to put in a bit of overtime to finish first in this encounter, but on the verge of his fifth consecutive US Open final, he’s not going to mind having to linger a bit longer on court. In the end, the men’s No. 1 just has too much game for the game Nishikori. In four sizzling sets, Djokovic is on to the final.

For a while there on Thursday night, it seemed as though Federer might be watching today’s action in high definition, but as the game’s greatest have the uncanny ability to do, Federer dug in and battled back against Gael Monfils, once again defining himself as a peerless presence in this sport. Down two sets, later facing two match points against him, the men’s second seed showed why he’s second to none with a racquet in his hand, making clutch shots when he needed them to post a 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 comeback win. It was the ninth time in his career that Federer had rallied for a win after losing the first two sets and the first time he’s done it here since his very first match in Flushing in 2000, long before the Swiss star owned virtually every page of the record book. The all-time men’s leader in Grand Slam singles titles with 17, Federer captured five consecutive US Open titles from 2004-08 and is competing today in the 36th Grand Slam semifinal of his illustrious career.

Cilic, conversely, is appearing in just the second major semifinal of his career. The 25-year-old Croatian also reached this point at the Australian Open in 2010. Coming off a run to the quarters at Wimbledon, he’s the first Croat to reach this point of the tournament since his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, was a US Open semifinalist in 1996. Twice before a quarterfinalist here, Cilic has bashed his way into this round with a bruising game that features an explosive serve, big returns and punishing ground assault. The No. 14 seed showcased every one of those elements brilliantly in ousting sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych in the semis. In that straight-sets win, the 6-foot-6 Cilic blasted 19 aces, won 84 percent of his first-serve points and got in 71 percent of his returns.

Federer has beaten Cilic in each of their five career meetings, the most recent a tightly contested 7-6, 6-7, 6-4 back-and-forth hard-court tussle in Toronto’s third round last month. Their only previous meeting in Flushing was a third-round encounter in 2011, won by Federer in four. This figures to be a close contest, and Federer figures to have his work cut out for him in taming the Cilic surge. The Croat is a good one, but Federer is a great one. When in doubt, go with great. It’s Federer in four.