We kept waiting.
We, the global community of tennis reporters, bloggers and fans alike, kept waiting for the moment when Novak Djokovic — tired, listless, dragging, generally lacking answers — would do what he’s done dozens upon dozens of times in the past, including and especially in the U.S. Open men’s singles semifinals.
In the 2010 U.S. Open semifinals, Djokovic trailed Roger Federer two sets to one. He prevailed in five.
In the 2011 semifinals, Djokovic was once again in a 2-1 ditch that had been a two-set deficit as well. He won in five, powered by a one-of-a-kind return winner at 3-5 and double-match point down on Federer’s serve.
In 2012 against David Ferrer, he lost the first set in windy conditions and — after a suspension of play — came back a day later and calmly won in four.
In 2013 against Stan Wawrinka — who was making his first appearance in a major semifinal that day — Djokovic fell behind two sets to one yet again… and won in five.
Four U.S. Open semifinals, four deficits, three of them after three sets… four wins.
Rafael Nadal is the toughest out in men’s tennis, but Djokovic had established a deserved reputation as No. 2 on that list. Seeded No. 1 at the U.S. Open and coming off:
A) a win at Wimbledon over Federer;
B) a short summer season that kept his legs fresh for this tournament;
C) a strong, assured victory over a not-that-bad Andy Murray in the quarterfinals…
… Djokovic appeared to be a heavy favorite not only to win his 2014 semifinal against Kei Nishikori — like Wawrinka, a first-time semifinalist in New York — but to capture his second major of the year and fill the void left by the injured French Open champion, Nadal.
Yes, Djokovic lost the first set. Yes, he fell behind, two sets to one. Yet, Djokovic has earned the right to be trusted in these kinds of moments. He is and has been, if nothing else, a top-tier survivor in men’s tennis. If you were waiting for “the moment” to come, you were being a logical and reasonable person.
Yet, all while Djokovic dealt with his ups and downs, there was another person on the other side of the net, another person who is part of the eternal dialogue of tennis.
In golf, the solo performer only has to address the questions asked by the ball. In tennis, the questions come from another human being. This dialogal quality gives tennis its spice and its enduring identity as “boxing without the blood.” For most of this match, the narrative weight fell on Djokovic, but in the end, it was Nishikori who stole the show and deserves to be seen as the center of this story.
UP FOR THE FIGHT: KEI NISHIKORI’S TRANSFORMATIVE TOURNAMENT
One month ago, in less than complete physical health, the always-banged-up Nishikori wasn’t a lock to even play in the U.S. Open. He pulled out of the Toronto and Cincinnati lead-up tournaments. He wasn’t worn down, but was he going to be able to ramp up his game with relatively little match play?
In both his fourth-round match against Milos Raonic and his quarterfinal win over Stan Wawrinka — both documented here at Attacking The Net — Nishikori arrived at a moment when it seemed his body was about to run out of steam. Early in set four against Raonic, down two sets to one, and early in set five against Wawrinka, Nishikori appeared to be on the ropes.
He climbed off those ropes, and after a weary second set against Djokovic in which he ate a 6-1 breadstick, Nishikori figured to be in for a long and ultimately unsuccessful afternoon. Yet, as the match wore on, Nishikori not only established himself as the more consistent player. He dealt with the kind of setback that so often sabotages an uspet bid when a player of Djokovic’s caliber is on the other side of the net.
Serving for the third set at 5-3, Nishikori faltered and gave away the game with a double fault. The moment recalled Gael Monfils doubling at 5-5 in the fourth set against Roger Federer in Thursday’s quarterfinals. Federer didn’t blow that opportunity. When Djokovic got into a third-set tiebreaker, the smart money sided with the world No. 1. Yet, Nishikori played four letter-perfect points to start the breaker. Djokovic did crumble on the final two points of the breaker, taken by Nishikori at 7-4, but the point was plain: Nishikori, the newbie semifinalist, held tough. Djokovic, the seven-time major champion, flinched.
In the fourth set, when Nishikori broke in the first game, it seemed that Djokovic would get his chances to break back, and in a long second game, Nishikori was tested as he tried to consolidate that break. Yet, in an affirmation of everything that happened on Saturday afternoon, Nishikori wasn’t seriously threatened on serve the rest of the way.
And so it was… and so it is: Against a world-class survivor named Novak Djokovic, Kei Nishikori’s survival and coping skills proved to be far better.
He’ll now chase a U.S. Open title on Monday evening in New York.
If his body looks weary at some point in the proceedings, not only will it not be time to doubt him: It will be time to expect Nishikori to dig in even more… like the guy he just conquered in the U.S. Open semifinals.