Kei Nishikori scores first win over weary Del Potro to reach Basel semis
Kei Nishikori is through to the semi-finals of the Swiss Indoors tournament in Basel after beating Juan Martin del Potro
That there were only three seeds left standing as the Swiss Indoors reached the quarter-final stage must have come as little consolation to David Goffin.
Seeded No5, and hoping to reach at least the title match to boost his World Tour Finals campaign, he came unstuck against the kind of wild card that sends a chill to the heart: Juan Martin del Potro.
The big Argentine, who has missed so many years since winning the US Open in 2009 due to repeated wrist surgery, had already beaten bigger and high-ranked opposition than Goffin this year—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka to name a few.
And while he may have begun his comeback in February this year ranked 1,042, he had cranked up the form with no fewer than 10 top-20 wins since: Goffin made 11.
Del Potro arrived in Basel fresh from winning his first title in almost three years, in Stockholm, so now he was only a few places short of a potential seeding come the Australian Open in the New Year. Indeed had he gained points in the Olympics—a silver medal—and Davis Cup—Argentina will contest the final next month—he would himself be among the top 20.
One of the three remaining seeds, No3 Kei Nishikori, must also have drawn scant consolation from facing Basel’s impressive wild card in the quarter-finals. In four previous matches against del Potro, he had not won a set. The up side of their latest encounter was that they had not met since the Olympics in 2012, and a lot of water had passed under the bridge since then.
For a start, the Japanese star had only just broken into the top 20 and had one Grand Slam quarter-final to his name. Now he was No5, had been a finalist at the US Open in 2014 and reached the semis this year, and had made three Masters finals and a further six semi-finals. Add in a semi run at the World Tour Finals and a bronze medal in Rio this summer, and Nishikori was a rather different package from 2012. Incidentally, he had also got 11 top-20 wins to his name this year, including Murray and Nadal.
Del Potro put it thus: “I think we are both different players since our last match. He is playing so good. His game improved a lot—he is one of favourite players to win the title here.
But I believe in my game, too, and if I serve like I did today, I will have a chance to win the match.”
But he went on: “I’m tired, as you can see… but this could be my last match of the season and tournament, and I am motivated for that.”
Certainly for the 6ft 6in Argentine, his big serve is one of the foundations of his game, opening up the court for his ruthless forehand. It could not be a bigger contrast with the light-footed game of the 5ft 10in Nishikori, whose speed around the court and accuracy of depth and angle can dismantle the game of more powerful opponents.
And del Potro’s serve lived up to his hopes in the early stages: In two swift service games, he hit four aces. But it was on Nishikori’s side that there was something of a surprise. He chased into the net several times on his opening few service games, though it was nearly the undoing of him in the second game: two breaks points and a hold.
But the Japanese man persisted with his attacking play, throwing in the occasional drop, and then pressing the del Potro serve. He was helped in the seventh game by a couple of loose double faults, came in for a smash winner, got the better of a long backhand exchange, but failed to convert four break points.
Now it was Nishikori’s turn to double fault to bring up break point, but he too survived, and after a love hold, he upped the aggression, stood toe-to-toe inside the baseline, and got his break on the dot of an hour. He took the set, 7-5, again showcasing a volley winner.
Del Potro had twice talked of exhaustion after his previous matches here, and he certainly began to look heavy-legged. At 0-40 down in the opening game of the second, though, he changed the tempo by coming to the net himself, threw down a couple of great serves, and held. But while in the third game, he could not resist the break point, and was facing 1-3.
Del Potro had one final chance to break back in the sixth game, but some clever wide kick serves by Nishikori did the job, and the No3 seed ended as he had started, coming to the net for a volley winner, 6-4.
It proved to be a tussle throughout, with clipped lines, searing forehands, 21 aces between them, and plenty of action around the net. But Nishikori, who had played only one complete match since the US Open until this week, clearly had more energy in the tank.
He will next play an unexpected man in the shape of world No37 Gilles Muller in a quarter devoid of seeds after No2 Milos Raonic and No6 Grigor Dimitrov lost in the first round. The big man from Luxembourg survived a two and three-quarter hour three-setter over Federico Delbonis, but has lost both previous matches to Nishikori. It looks very much as though the No3 seed will make the final in Basel for the second time.
Top seed and home favourite Stan Wawrinka had taken three sets to beat world No119 Marco Chiudinelli and then the 83-ranked Donald Young. Now he faced No72 Mischa Zverev. The Swiss man was enjoying every moment since winning his opener—his first match-win here in five years—and was now targeting only his third semi here in 13 appearances.
But the tall, left-handed German had other ideas. Riding a wave of confidence, despite having yet to win a main-tour singles title at 29 years old, he came through qualifying for a record 10th time this year—and found the lively conditions here very much to his liking.
For his decent doubles record has hones an old-fashioned serve and volley game, and he opened up Wawrinka’s tennis with ease in the first set to break twice, 6-2. He came back from a break down in the second set, but Wawrinka dug in to break again for the set, 7-5, though Zverev had made just two unforced errors.
It looked, then, as though Wawrinka would carry that momentum to the finish line, but Zverev broke in the third game, and twice more, for a famous victory, 6-1. He will play Marin Cilic in the semi-finals after the Croat beat Marcel Granollers, 6-3, 6-3.