Novak Djokovic’s quest for a sixth Australian Open title remains on course, after the reigning champion marched into the semi-finals with an emphatic 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 triumph over Kei Nishikori on Tuesday.
The win for the world No. 1 means he’ll face Roger Federer in what promises to be an absorbing clash in the final four in Melbourne, Australia.
But after yet another fine performance at the Rod Laver Arena, Djokovic will have high spirits heading into that match, as he seeks to become the only man ever to have won this illustrious title on six occasions.
Nishikori will be left to reflect on another chance at winning a Grand Slam title missed, as he struggled throughout the quarter-final.
After emerging from a gruelling five-set thriller with Gilles Simon last time out, all eyes were on Djokovic from the outset to see if there were any signs of fatigue.
But as revered tennis coach Brad Gilbert noted during the early stages of the match, the champion was hitting the ball sweetly in some aggressive early exchanges:
Djoker hitting the ball clean and going to me much more aggressive minded tonight because of Special K fire power— Brad Gilbert (@bgtennisnation) January 26, 2016
Nishikori couldn’t really put Djokovic under any pressure in the opener. Usually a compact and efficient player, the Japanese didn’t find a groove and was lacking the patented spark we've seen from him in this tournament to date.
With the match on serve going into the sixth game, Nishikori’s slack play cost him dear. Indeed, it was a double-fault from the Japanese on break point which handed the top seed a vital advantage, and from there Djokovic didn’t look back, taking the opener 6-3 in 32 minutes, aided by 14 unforced errors from the seventh seed.
As Tennis journalist Matt Cronin noted at the end of the first set, Nishikori was simply making too many mistakes:
Too many errors from Nishikori, loses 1st set vs Djokovic 6-3. Has to play much better than that. In his head?— Matt Cronin (@TennisReporters) January 26, 2016
What was also ominous for Nishikori at the start of the second stanza was that there was still room for improvement from Djokovic. And as the Serb tuned up his serves and settled into a groove on his groundstrokes, the size of the challenge facing Nishikori was becoming more and more apparent.
Djokovic was fast out of the traps, breaking his opponent in the opening game. To his credit, Nishikori did carve out a couple of break points of his own immediately afterwards, but a big hold from the Serb was a huge momentum builder, as he went on to win the second set 6-2.
As noted by the tournament’s official Twitter feed, Djokovic had really stepped up when it mattered:
Still, despite getting through in clutch points, there were still chances to be had for Nishikori on Djokovic's serve and the Japanese eventually took one at the start of the third set, breaking to go 2-0 in front.
But both men were really finding it tough on their own serve. Djokovic broke back immediately, which was again followed by another Nishikori break, to love no less. But once again the underdog was unable to consolidate, allowing his opponent to get the match back on serve with a love game of his own.
Eventually it was the champion who halted this run of games, holding his serve to level the match at 3-3. Nishikori was unable to rediscover similar rhythm with the ball in hand, though, as he was pushed to deuce in the seventh game before eventually being broken by Djokovic.
As noted by tennis journalist Chris Goldsmith, at this point you could see the confidence drain from Nishikori:
Djokovic breaks.... Kei no confidence on serve ... broken 3 times in a row and Novak 6-3 6-2 4-3 up #ausopen— Chris Goldsmith (@TheTennisTalker) January 26, 2016
Djokovic held to go just one game away from the semi-finals and, although he was unable to breach the Nishikori serve for the fourth game in succession, a routine hold in the final game saw the champion through in straight sets.
Who will progress to the final?
After a gruelling, error-strewn match against Simon, this was exactly the kind of tie Djokovic needed. Granted, the 13-time Grand Slam champion wasn’t at full tilt here, but it was a quarter-final in which he didn’t have to exert too much energy ahead of what will be a very difficult test against the veteran Federer.
The two icons have been involved in some enthralling tussles in recent years, with the pair each winning 22 of the 44 matches they’ve played against one another. Still, at this venue and in this kind of form, even the wizardry of Federer will find it extremely difficult to tame a rampant Djokovic.
Reaction to follow.