Remember when Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic knocked off Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in the same major tournament’s semifinal round?
Nishikori was 24 years old when he reached the 2014 U.S. Open final, and Cilic was 25 when he won it. It’s true that Cilic permanently eliminated the burden of having to win a major title, while Nishikori is still trying to remove that weight from his shoulders. Nevertheless, both men had reason to think — as they flew out of New York — that they could take their careers in new and higher directions.
In the six major tournaments since the 2014 U.S. Open, the two men — in 12 total opportunities — have combined to make just one semifinal appearance. Cilic, to his credit, made use of a very weak draw at the 2015 U.S. Open, but in the semifinals, he was completely dismantled by Djokovic.
Cilic will turn 28 after the U.S. Open. Nishikori will be 27 when this year ends. If you’re looking for someone to supplant Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, or Stan Wawrinka as the primary challenger to Novak Djokovic over the next two to three years — the question which could very well decide how high Djokovic climbs in the longer run of tennis history — Nishikori and Cilic appear less likely to be those men. After this French Open, the sense of resignation attached to their games seems more pronounced than ever.
Cilic bombed out of this French Open early, losing to an opponent — Marco Trungelliti — who had barely played any ATP Tour or major-tournament matches at the main-draw level. Cilic was hooked by a bad call from the chair umpire late in the first set, but he had every chance to regroup and win the first-set tiebreaker. He didn’t. He regrouped to take the second set and took the lead in the third, but just when he seemed to have righted his ship, he faltered and lost in four.
The competitor who was so laser-focused in that New York September nearly two years ago has not reappeared. One fortnight in America becomes more and more an aberration with each passing tournament.
The same is true for Nishikori.
First things first: Richard Gasquet is playing better, more consistent tennis at this later stage in his career. The Frenchman turns 30 later in June, and he’s learned a thing or two about holding his nerves. Gasquet imposed his fluid and stylish game on Nishikori in the fourth round. Moreover, after Nishikori won the third set and created the suggestion that he’d be able to rally for a five-set win, Gasquet promptly broke him to start the fourth set. The Frenchman earned everything he received in the round of 16.
Let that point be noted and absorbed.
Yet — in a theme which has replicated itself on the women’s side in Paris this fortnight — a loss can be bad even when the opponent plays well. Nishikori’s loss to Gasquet is a bad loss not because of the opponent, but because Nishikori has once again failed to play his very best at a tournament when elite players are expected to rise.
Nishikori handled Gasquet in Madrid. He repeated that feat a week later in Rome. Wins in separate clay tournaments — on very different clay surfaces which play at different speeds and heights (in terms of both local elevation and the height of the bounce each surface allows) — offered every indication that Nishikori was ready to face Andy Murray in a very winnable quarterfinal. Murray has scuffled at times in the first week of the tournament; Nishikori had a real chance to do some damage with his draw.
In microcosm, Gasquet played well. Sometimes, on the given day, the opponent is too good. That’s sports. However, how many times will Nishikori enter a major and fail to lift his game when a beatable non-Djokovic, non-Nadal opponent plays at a relatively high but not quite untouchable level?
Great players find ways to defuse the Richard Gasquets of the world. Maybe Nishikori gets a pass in this particular tournament, but over the longer run of time, he consistently fails to be at his best when it matters.
Yes, Gasquet played well, but isn’t it the mark of a great player to not merely play better than a high-quality opponent, but to prevent said opponent from being able to play well? Djokovic, Nadal and Murray all do this. Federer doesn’t make opponents play poorly so much as he lands the first strike before they know what to offer as a counter-move.
We’re waiting for Kei Nishikori to become a more imposing player in tennis’s biggest tournaments. We’re waiting for Marin Cilic to show us that New York in 2014 was not an aberration.
Time isn’t endless. Nearing the ages of 27 and 28, Nishikori and Cilic won’t have too many more years in which to make a larger mark on the world of men’s tennis.