US Open 2014: Can Kei Nishikori Finally Break Through Against Favorite Djokovic?

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US Open 2014: Can Kei Nishikori Finally Break Through Against Favorite Djokovic?
Julian Finney/Getty Images

It's been a good fortnight to be Japanese superstar Kei Nishikori, the man formerly known as "Project 45."

The 24-year-old from Japan, seeded No. 10 at this U.S. Open, is into his first major semifinal after back-to-back, draining, five-set wins over top-five seeds Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka.

Now, Nishikori is about to get the biggest test of his tennis career.

On Saturday afternoon, in the biggest tennis stadium in the world, Nishikori will face off against world No. 1 Novak Djokovic with a spot in the U.S. Open final on the line. Game on.

You're probably aware of Djokovic's accomplishments. He has seven Grand Slams, including this year's Wimbledon title, has been to the finals of the U.S. Open for the last four years and hasn't lost before the semis at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center since 2006.

He also loves the hard courts—five of his major victories are on the surface.

In short, Djokovic is the favorite in this match. The Serb rarely comes across a match where he's not the favorite.

But don't overlook the first man from Japan to make the semis of a major in the Open era. He's been pegged as a major contender for years now and seems to finally be living up to his potential. 

J. Pat Carter/Associated Press
At 18, with his first title.

Nishikori moved from Japan to Florida when he was a teenager to train at the famed Nick Bollettieri Academy. The initial goal was to make him the highest-ranked Japanese player in history, which would mean he'd have to surpass Shuzo Matsuoka's career-high ranking of No. 46. Hence, Project 45 was born.

Nishikori first showed the world his promise in 2008, when he won the ATP tournament in Delray Beach as an 18-year-old qualifier, defeating James Blake in the final. Later that year, he made it to the fourth round of the U.S. Open after upsetting world No. 4 David Ferrer in five sets and officially made his top-100 debut.

Christopher Clarey of The New York Times analyzes what makes Nishikori dangerous on the tennis court: 

At 5 feet 10 inches, Nishikori is short for a modern-day tennis star. Though his serve lacks, and will always lack, the punch of taller men like Raonic, he does not lack for weapons.

His returns are among the best in the game, as are his groundstrokes, and though Raonic did his intimidating best to keep the exchanges short, pounding 35 aces, Nishikori’s racket-head control and reflexes kept many points alive where lesser technicians and athletes would have failed.

Despite all of his talent, it hasn't been a straight ascension. Soft-spoken and hard-working, Nishikori has been plagued by injuries throughout his career.

"I remember once he would just kind of make a breakthrough and start playing well he would get injured," Djokovic told the press at the U.S. Open after his quarterfinal win over Andy Murray. "That has been quite an obstacle for him."

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

As other players of his generation such as Grigor Dimitrov and Raonic rose up the rankings rather steadily over the past few years, for Nishikori it's been one step forward, two steps back as his body continuously broke down whenever prosperity came knocking.

But Nishikori has kept coming back, and this year he has been playing the best tennis of his career.

He joined forces with former French Open champion Michael Chang at the start of the season and has gone 34-9 with two titles.

He broke into the top 10 for the first time in his career in May, though he immediately fell right out of it after dealing with a back injury during clay season.

Believe it or not, Nishikori sat out most of the U.S. Open Series with a toe injury as well—I wasn't kidding about the frequent injuries—and came into the U.S. Open with doubts about his form and fitness. But with a newly aggressive style and sharper focus thanks to Chang, and self-confidence to spare due to his good results this season, he hasn't missed a beat.

His fourth-round win over Raonic didn't end until 2:26 a.m. ET and made a big statement to the general tennis public about Nishikori's mental and physical health. It also made Chang, who played in his fair share of late New York nights, quite excited.

Julian Finney/Getty Images

After that noteworthy win, he talked to the press about what Chang has brought to his game:

You know, he's telling me a lot of things to, I don't know, to stay focused in the match and never get frustrated too much and always pump up yourself. Yeah, he told me congrats, you know, to win this battle. Two in a row. But he also say, you know, It's not done. Stay focus....

Nishikori avoided a letdown by taking out Australian Open champion Wawrinka in five sets at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Wednesday, and now he awaits his time to shine against the favorite to win the tournament.

This will be Nishikori and Djokovic's third meeting, and they're actually tied 1-1 in the head-to-head, though they haven't played since 2011.

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The two label mates—both are dressed by the Japanese company Uniqlo—were slated to meet in the semis of Miami earlier this year after Nishikori upset Roger Federer, but the man from Japan was, once again, forced to withdraw due to injury before the match began.

This time, however, Nishikori is coming into the match fit, healthy and battle-tested.

The Japanese sensation only had to get to No. 45 in the rankings to be considered a superstar in his home country. Now, if he wants to become a superstar in New York City, Nishikori's going to have to beat the best player in the world on the largest stage in the sport.

We'll see on Saturday if Nishikori is finally ready to take his project to the next level.

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