Australian Open 2015: Nishikori sets up mouth-watering rematch with Wawrinka

Kei Nishikori beats David Ferrer in straight sets to reach the quarter-finals of the Australian Open

The home nation for this year’s Australian Open has had plenty to cheer about.

Its high-octane men, from teenage Thanasi Kokkinakis to 33-year-old Lleyton Hewitt in the early rounds, to the big and extrovert Nick Kyrigios and Bernard Tomic in fourth round, have packed the stands with the Aussie faithful.

But this is the Grand Slam of Asia Pacific, and there is another man in Melbourne with the support of thousands: Japan’s Kei Nishikori.

The slight and explosive world No5 is nothing short of a super-star in his homeland, and little wonder. By reaching the final of the US Open last summer, he became the first Asian male ever to reach that stage of a tennis Major, just the latest in a string of firsts.

His popularity with tennis aficionados goes well beyond Japan, though. One of the shortest men in the main draw, he makes up for any lack of stature with wonderful timing and movement, with crisp and accurate shot-making, with all-court flair and tactical flexibility.

Nishikori has had injury problems along the way, but 2014 saw him begin to fulfil his plentiful talent: four titles on top of that Grand Slam final, and multiple wins over top-10 players, including Andy Murray, Milos Raonic, Roger Federer—and one man more than all the others, David Ferrer.

Nishikori, indeed, had become something of a thorn in the side of the 32-year-old No9 seed, one of the few men shorter than Nishikori on the tour. Since their first meeting at the US Open in 2008, a five-set loss to Ferrer, the Spaniard had lost six of nine encounters, including all four of their meetings last year. Yet all their 2014 matches had gone the distance, with most involving tie-breaks.

Could Ferrer, who had reached two quarters and two semis in Melbourne in his last four years, ride the early 2015 form that took him to the Doha title?

Ahead of their latest battle, neither had enjoyed easy runs. Nishikori had gone to four sets twice, Ferrer three times—his last against Gilles Simon leaving the Spaniard with bleeding feet.

Nishikori, then, would have to raise his level if he was to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final for only the third time—and he did.

But the Spaniard was also well below his bustling best. It’s a rare match in which Ferrer makes so many unforced errors—there were 44 of them to only 14 winners—and he also struggled to make any inroads on the Nishkori serve, winning only 33 points from almost 100 return points.

The first set established the tone: four winners for Ferrer, 16 for the attacking Nishikori. The Spaniard won only half his first-serve points, double-faulted twice, and was broken twice as Nishikori made the first strike, 6-3, in 38 minutes.

The second set was a little more competitive, not least because Nishikori’s first serve slipped to 50 percent, with three double faults into the bargain. But despite an exchange of breaks, he managed another to take it, 6-3.

Ferrer was able to extend the match for a further 40 minutes, though with only two winners in third set. But while the errors flowed from both sides, 15 to Nishikori and 18 from Ferrer, the Japanese man’s pace and energy proved too much, he broke twice, and advanced to the quarter-finals, 6-3.

It was a confident Nishikori who later spoke to the media: “I played really comfortable on the court. I had a lot of confidence going into this match, and I was playing almost 100 percent tennis; really aggressive, good forehand, and serving also was really good.”

He went on: “For sure I have to be really strong mentally to believe I can beat any players. I beat David three sets here. Beat a couple of top-10 players before. So I have to stay really focused all the time, prepare well and just play good tennis.”

But it was to his quarter-final match that everyone now looked, and with good reason. Defending champion Stan Wawrinka came through a tougher-than-expected three-plus hours contest with the unseeded Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, 7-6(2), 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(8), making an impressive 70 winners to do so. And that set up a highly-anticipated repeat of his quarter-final against Nishikori in their last meeting at the US Open, won in five compelling sets by the Japanese man.

Wawrinka summed it up: “He’s a tough, tough player. He improved a lot last year. He’s a great shot maker… always taking the ball really early. It’s always tough to play against him…

“[I have to] start to zero again. It’s a new year. And it will depend a little bit on me; the way I’m going to serve, the way I’m aggressive from the baseline. If I can play heavy, if I can play my game, it’s tough for [Nishikori] to always take the ball early. We’ll see how I’m going to deal with that.”

Nishikori agreed: “It’s going to be a really tough match because I have seen him play on TV a couple of matches. Even today he was playing really good. He can hit balls forehand, backhand—great backhand actually. He can hit from anywhere at the back.

“For sure it gives me confidence that I beat him in the US Open. It’s not like I can’t beat him. It’s going to be a fun match for sure.”

And no-one will disagree with that.

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