Kei Nishikori's run through the U.S. Open was, to put it mildly, eventful. This was Mike Tyson's Punch Out and he was Little Mac, ascending through better and better opponents before ultimately losing to a Marin Cilic who possessed a haymaker, knockout blow.
Many players run into hurricanes on the court and like the real thing, they always have names. He survived Hurricane Cilic beaten (3-6, 3-6, 3-6) but not broken. Nishikori, if nothing else, proved he belongs on this stage.
It could also have been the attrition of his body. Since the fourth round, the No. 10 seed played 14 sets and 164 games to reach the final. Fatigue set in, but the way he played and how he grinded proved what a special player he is and can be.
Nishikori, who has a nice serve but not the BIG serve, must earn his points where players like Cilic, Federer and Milos Raonic can ride the power of their serves.
For Nishikori, his U.S. Open apotheosis began against No. 5 Raonic in the fourth round. It started one day and ended on another.
Five sets, back and forth, two tie breaks and Nishikori came out ahead.
Raonic said on CBS Sports.com:
His foot speed was the most probably difficult part. He was taking the ball very early, controlling the center of the court. He was keeping himself in a lot of situations where someone might be out of position. He was getting himself in good position and giving himself good opportunity to swing at the ball properly.
It took four hours and 19 minutes. And if that wasn’t enough, Nishikori faced the 2014 Australian Open champion and No. 3-seed Stan Wawrinka. Again, Nishikori took five sets to outlast Wawrinka. Nishikori is an illusionist. How he pulls off these tricks is anyone’s guess. Knowing the solution would spoil the magic.
Wawrinka said in The New York Times after the match, "Even at the beginning he looks like he’s going to die on the court, but he’s there. Physically, he’s there. Even at the end of the match, even. We were both quite tired in the fifth set. I try not to show. He was really going for his shot in the fifth set... That’s life."
The natural progression of Nishikori’s Odyssey through Flushing Meadows had to be the No. 1 overall seed and No. 1 player in the world Novak Djokovic. From five to three and now to one. There’s no way, no chance after playing 10 sets of tennis against two top-five players in less than two days that he could possibly show up and play well.
No shot. None.
Djokovic said he “wasn’t himself,” and maybe part of that had to do with the weather, but guys like Nishikori can’t be allowed to hang around. He reaches shots and grinds men down, and he’s just getting started.
Nishikori was born the year his coach became the youngest man to win a Grand Slam ever. That’s Michael Chang.
Under the tutelage of Chang, the 1989 French Open winner, Nishikori will continue to blossom. Just like Chang, Nishikori is quick and runs down points and beats other men with his tenacity and fitness.
Chris Chase of USA Today wrote, “Nishikori and Chang paired up late last year, with Nishikori hoping the union would help him break through into the top 10. The pairing was supposed to last five months, but early success kept Chang on the team and it’s paying dividends now.”
But being smaller and being, by comparison, far less powerful, Nishikori puts all the emphasis on his legs. That means he doesn’t have easy points. Because he lacks the wingspan of an albatross, he’s relatively easy to ace.
Raonic aced him 35 times. Wawrinka aced him 18 times. Djokovic managed just 13 and Cilic drilled 17 in just 27 total games. Nishikori, on the other hand, barely gets more than a six pack of aces. Again, no easy points.
Nishikori runs the risk of breaking down early given how hard and how much he runs. Just ask Rafael Nadal how that has treated him over his career. Even in this tournament, Nishikori battled an infected toe.
He’s got the ability, the coach and the mental toughness to wear big hitters down. If his opponent's second-serve points crest over 50 percent, that appears the best—and only—way to beat Nishikori. Cilic won 80 percent of his first-serve points and 61 percent on second serve.
“I couldn’t play my tennis,” Nishikori said during the CBS broadcast. “It’s a really tough loss. I’m really happy to come to the final. It was a fun two weeks here. I hope I can come back next year.”
Nishikori has French Open written all over him. And while it’s unlikely he’ll be an all-time great, a player of his skill is here to stay, much to the chagrin of the old and new guard alike.
All stats were provided at usopen.org.