KEI NISHIKORI could not believe it; Novak Djokovic could not bear it. The world No.1 had been overwhelmed and overpowered by the slender but sensational talent from Shimane in Japan and now it was Nishikori who was in the US Open final, the first Asian man in the history of the sport to reach a grand slam final.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Nishikori said after his 6-4, 1-6, 7-6, 6-4 win. He was exhausted, he was elated and he was a winner. When the tournament began, no one – least of all Nishikori – had foreseen this. And when he took ten sets and nearly nine hours to get through the two previous rounds, no one imagined that he would have enough gas left in the tank to challenge the might of Djokovic in such a high-pressure match.
“I hope this is big news in Japan. I know it’s four o’clock in the morning there, but I hope a lot of people were watching. I was a bit tight – it was my first grand slam semi-final. It’s just an amazing feeling beating the world No.1.
“He started to play better in the second set but I just try to forget about the first two sets. It really is an amazing feeling.”
The conditions were unbearably hot. The temperature touched 36 degrees towards the end of the match while the humidity was tipping 70 per cent, making the air as thick as treacle. At the same time, the wind was whipping round the Arthur Ashe stadium, changing direction minute by minute. Even so, Nishikori was making it all look so easy as he romped through the first set.
Everyone has always known of Nishikori’s talent – the 24-year-old was one of the players marked out as a possible challenger to the Big Four at the top of the rankings. But his 5ft 10ins frame has been prone to breaking down throughout his career and whenever he has seemed ready to make a breakthrough, he has been hampered by yet another injury.
Even coming here, he was dealing with a toe injury that caused him to pull out of both the Toronto and Cincinnati Masters. The form book, then, never suggested that he would be able to scythe down the biggest and the best and make his way to the final.
Nishikori is coached by Michael Chang, a man who knew all about guile and court craft to make up for his lack of height and power. Adding his expertise and experience to Nishikori’s natural talent has turned the gifted but underachieving Japanese into a confident and aggressive grand slam contender.
There is an unrestrained abandon in the way that Nishikori goes for his winners. Quiet and a little shy away from the courts, he is a showman with a racket in his hand. He slaps his forehand and cracks his backhand to find spaces and targets that are unimaginable to most players. And his speed around the court is remarkable – his legs are but a blur as he chases down any and every ball.
Then there is his natural physical strength: he may have looked out on his feet in the second set but he had a seemingly endless supply of energy to get him through the crisis. All in all, it was more than Djokovic could cope with.
“This is definitely huge for Japan,” Djokovic said. “It’s a big country. Over a hundred million people. This can definitely be a great encouragement for tennis in that country. He’s been around for last couple of years. He’s been making a lot of success. But playing finals of a grand slam and now fighting for a title is definitely something different.
“I think in the past, he wasn’t using forehand as well as he does now. His backhand is very solid. One of the best double-handed backhands from all over the court. Really aggressive.”
Only in the second set did Djokovic manage to make any impression. As Nishikori faded in the heat and looked utterly spent, the Serb began to play with more aggression and precision, but he could not make it last.
Nishikori was gathering his strength again and as the third set reached the midway point, he went on the attack, flinging himself into a couple of returns to earn a break of serve.
Suddenly the momentum had switched back to Nishikori and he was on the march towards the final.