Entering the US Open, Kei Nishikori of Japan was coming off toe surgery, which kept him off the court for a month. But more recently, he suffered through back-to-back five-setters, defeating No. 5 Milos Raonic and No. 3 Stan Wawrinka, each match lasting more than four hours.
The 10th seed and marathon man of the 2014 US Open kept his foot on the gas and shocked 2011 champion and top seed Novak Djokovic, 6-4, 1-6, 7-6, 6-3, preventing the Serb from making a fifth consecutive final in Flushing Meadows.
Instead, the 24-year-old Nishikori reached his first career Grand Slam final.
Though he had every right to be enervated, Nishikori came out firing with a surprising spring in his step after two days rest on a very hot and muggy afternoon Saturday. Playing fearless tennis, taking the offensive and pushing Djokovic around the court, the Japanese player snatched the first set, 6-4.
When the top-seeded Serb found his game and rebounded to roll through the second set, it looked as though Nishikori’s surprising run might be over. He shuffled slowly between points and appeared to be a man who’d finally had enough.
It turns out Nishikori was just conserving energy. When the points started in the third set, Nishikori continued blasting away, stepping inside the baseline to cut off Djokovic’s angles and smacking winners as soon as he got a playable ball off his opponent’s racquet.
Nishikori, who arrived at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla., as a 14-year-old, appeared better able to handle the heat and humidity than the world No. 1. In their third encounter – Nishikori now holds a 2-1 advantage – the 10th seed “was the better player today,” admitted Djokovic.
Nishikori hasn’t just reached a personal milestone. He has made history as the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam final.