Reading Marin Cilic’s wide serve, Kei Nishikori danced in the alley slashing a forehand with finality.
The best clutch closer in the sport finished with a flurry today.
Nishikori ripped a rousing return on match point to seal his third trip to the US Open semifinals with a 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4, triumph while making Grand Slam history for Japan.
Following victorious compatriot Naomi Osaka on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Nishikori’s five-set triumph marks the first time in Open Era history Japan has a man and woman in the semifinals of the same Grand Slam.
“It wasn’t easy, and I didn’t feel like I was playing [my] best tennis today,” Nishikori said. But fought through somehow and, yeah, gives me big confidence playing semis next round.”
This topsy-turvy rematch of the 2014 US Open final spanned four hours, eight minutes and saw Nishikori solidify his status as the premier pressure closer in the game.
Nishikori raised his five-set record to 18-6 and elevated his record in decisive sets to an Open Era-best 121-39 on a day of record-setting celebration for Japan.
“I wish I don’t go to five sets every time,” Nishikori said. “I try to fight every point even though I was really tired. I tried to fight every point and really focus every one point.”
The 21st-seeded Nishikori and compatriot Naomi Osaka, who preceded Nishikori on Ashe Stadium court powering past Lesia Tsurenko, 6-1, 6-1, in giving Japan a man and woman semifinalist for the first time in history.
Osaka and Nishikori dined together during her Indian Wells title run in March and he believes the 20-year-old power player has the hunger and game to master a major.
“Well, yeah, it’s great to see. She’s doing well, because she has won a Masters,” Nishikori said. “I think she can win a title now, even though Grand Slam. So I feel big chance for her.
“Well, also happy for myself, too, you know, being injured last year. You know, I couldn’t play this tournament last year. Happy to coming back, semis, and, yeah, always play good here. So I hope I can keep going.
It is Nishikori’s sixth victory in seven matches vs. Top 10 opponents in Flushing Meadows.
Advancing to his third US Open semifinal in the last four years, Nishikori awaits the winner of tonight’s quarterfinal between sixth-seeded Novak Djokovic and 55th-ranked Aussie John Millman, who shocked five-time champion Roger Federer on Monday night.
Wimbledon winner Djokovic has dominated Nishikori winning their last 13 encounters to take a commanding 14-2 lead in their head-to-head series. Since Nishikori toppled Djokovic, 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3, in the 2014 US Open semifinals, the Serbian has won 28 of the 32 sets they’ve played, including a four-set Wimbledon quarterfinal victory in August.
“He’s very solid from baseline,” Nishikori said of Djokovic. “He doesn’t have many weakness. He has great backhand and forehand, too. He can be aggressive, and serve, he got better, too. I will say everything.”
This was the second four-hour match of the tournament for Cilic, who fought back from a two set deficit defeating Alex de Minaur, 7-5-in-the-fifth-set of the third round.
The seventh-seeded Croatian served Nishikori off the court capturing his first Grand Slam championship in the 2014 US Open final.
Arthur Ashe Stadium court was playing significantly faster four years ago.
These days, players say the surface is slower and that helped Nishikori get a longer look at Cilic’s serve. Nishikori converted five of nine break-point chances.
Court positioning was key as each man tried straddling the baseline at different times in the match. Nishikori’s skill changing direction with strikes down the line on pivotal points was a key to the match.
“I felt once we were getting into the rallies he was slightly more consistent, and he had in, most of the rallies, maybe 60 percent of the rallies that he was the one that was dictating and creating chances,” Cilic said. “I felt that I lost some of the points where it was sort of both of us could win it, and just missed maybe the first shot in the rally or the return or just after return I would miss a couple of shots. So it was just not finding rhythm there.”
Both players took turns taking charge. Exuding more urgency at the start, Cilic charged out to a 6-2, 4-2 lead as a lethargic Nishikori looked out of it.
Altering his return position, Nishikori began striking cleaner shots from the strings of his Wilson racquet with the camoflague cosmetic reeling off six straight games to spark his comeback.
“He started very well. And also, I didn’t make any first serve in the beginning, especially,” Nishikori said. “Well, didn’t feel like I was playing great. I had to stay tough, especially second set.
“I started playing better from 4-2. I tried to swing little more and play aggressive and start working better from 4-2 down. I felt like he was playing good tennis, and he gave me some free points, but he was playing great today so it wasn’t easy. But I really happy to win, go through matches like this.”