This year, the promise of young players such as Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori has been rewarded at last with top-10 status, but there had been few chances to see them play one another at Grand Slam level.
The eldest of the three, the 24-year-old Nishikori, had since slipped a few places after battles with injury over the summer. Indeed his presence in New York had itself been uncertain after missing much of the North American hard-court swing: He had played only three matches since Wimbledon. But he arrived with the No10 seeding.
Raonic, born exactly a year after Nishikori—give or take a day—actually made his breakthrough into the top-10 for one week last summer after a run to the final of his home tournament, the Montreal Masters, but this spring he had pushed on to a career-high No6 with a quarter-final run at Roland Garros and the semis at Wimbledon. He began his latest Grand Slam as the No5 seed.
But if anything is guaranteed to test the fitness of a tennis player, it is the US Open, especially in the kind of heat and humidity that New York has thrown at the tournament this year, and especially for those scheduled to play the last match on the last holiday of summer.
Add into the equation that both men were hoping to reach the quarter-finals in New York for the first time, and it turned into a battle royal that would take a body-and-spirit-breaking 4 hrs 19 mins to decide.
In a match that started on Labor Day and ended on the first day of autumn, the Japanese Nishikori endured over Canadian Raonic, 4-6, 7-6, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4, at a record-equalling 2:26 in the morning. And that tied it for the latest finish at the US Open with two previous matches: John Isner versus Philipp Kohlschreiber in 2012 and Mats Wilander versus Maikel Pernfors in a 1993.
For all the similarities between Raonic and Nishikori in their career trajectories, their birthdays, the number of Grand Slam matches won—34 and 33—and their high-profile coaches—Raonic had Ivan Ljubicic in this corner, Nishikori had Michael Chang—were countered by vast differences in their tennis style, driven by vast differences in their size.
Raonic, a huge figure at 6ft 5in, and with one of the most formidable serves and forehands in the business, had added some depth to his game under the tutelage of Ljubicic, and improved his movement and net game—no easy task for a man with such long legs. But his game was and remains based on the power of his right arm.
Nishikori, in contrast, is a slender, nimble figure of 5ft 10in and 150lbs, but has the kind of timing on his ground-strokes that must be the envy of many a bigger man. His shot-making—flat and angled on both wings—is reminiscent of Nikolay Davydenko at his best, but with a creativity in touch and tactics to upset the best. Nishikori has beaten David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Dimitrov—and Roger Federer twice.
And it takes a certain kind of skill and razor sharp reactions to face down 86 winners and 35 aces that topped out at 144 mph. Raonic’s second serve even reached 139mph at one point during their marathon encounter.
Nishikori also needed treatment on his troublesome foot during the fourth set as he began his battle back from a two-sets-to-one deficit, but he broke at 5-5—the first break point for either man in 14 games—to serve out the set.
In the final set, after four hours of play, Nishikori broke the imposing Raonic for the fifth and final time for a 3-2 lead that he held to the match’s conclusion.
Nishikori became the first Japanese man to reach the quarters at the US Open, but his bid for a career-first Grand Slam semi-final will require more of the same spirit and endurance. He faces the No3 seed Stan Wawrinka, who reached the semis here last year and went on to claim his first Grand Slam title in Australia.
Wawrinka survived his own battle against the come-back king Tommy Robredo, who had beaten Nick Kyrgios from two sets down in the third round.
Robredo looked ready the do the same against Wawrinka when he levelled the match at one set all, but the impressive and aggressive Swiss, facing set points in the third-set tie-break, went on to win it and raced through the fourth for the win, 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(7), 6-2.
Nishikori recognised the scale of his Raonic win and of the task that lay ahead:
“It’s going to bring confidence for sure for the next round. It was a really tough five sets. Very happy to win today. I’ll try to recover … Tomorrow [against Wawrinka] is going to be very important.”
To make matters worse, the Swiss has won both their previous encounters—and with a walk-over in the third round has played one fewer match than Nishikori.
So another test of fitness of the highest order for Nishikori come Wednesday.
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BIOGRAPHY: Cesc Fabregas