Can Nishikori Stop Djokovic’s Pursuit Of History?
After Novak Djokovic completed a grueling four-set win in the fourth round of the Australian Open in the early hours of Tuesday morning, the Serbian stepped back on the court to speak with former World No. 1 and on-court interviewer Jim Courier. The American asked how Djokovic was holding up after a physical battle against Daniil Medvedev.
“Since I guess my next opponent is watching, I’m feeling fantastic. I’ve never felt fresher in my life,” he said.
Djokovic was joking. But he’ll certainly hope he feels fresh, because another tough test looms in the quarter-finals. The top seed faces Japanese superstar Kei Nishikori, who triumphed in a fifth-set tie-break in the fourth round, on Wednesday with a spot in the last four on the line.
“Kei won another marathon match. Congratulations to him for fighting back from two-sets-to-love down and a break down,” Djokovic said. “He’s a fighter. He’s a very talented player. One of the quickest players on the Tour. I have lots of respect for him.”
Nishikori’s victory against Pablo Carreno Busta was not his first marathon at Melbourne Park this year. The eighth seed rallied from two sets down in the opening round, and then outlasted 39-year-old Ivo Karlovic in a fifth-set tie-break in the second round. Time and time again Nishikori has been tested this fortnight, but despite spending 13 hours and 47 minutes on court — that total leads the four players in the top half of the draw and is three hours and 22 minutes more than second seed Rafael Nadal has spent in action advancing to the semi-finals — he has kept on winning, and that’s what counts.
“I’m really glad how I came back,” Nishikori said after overcoming a 5/8 deficit in his final-set tie-break against Carreno Busta. “I don’t even know how I come back, but [I’m] very happy to win.”
Another obstacle he’ll have to overcome is what has been a lopsided FedEx ATP Head2Head rivalry with Djokovic. The six-time Australian Open champion, who is trying to separate himself from Roger Federer and Roy Emerson by winning a record seventh trophy at the tournament, has won 15 of their 17 clashes, including 14 in a row.
“Every year is different, so every match that you play against each other is different, so I expect him obviously to come out, to try something new,” Djokovic said. “I have beaten him many times that we played against each other in the past couple of years and we played on different surfaces. [There were] a couple of very close matches. I expect a tough one.”
The winner of that battle will face either former World No. 3 Milos Raonic or 28th seed Lucas Pouille. While Raonic advanced to the semi-finals in Melbourne just three years ago, Pouille had not won a match at the season’s first Grand Slam before this edition of the event.
“We worked very hard during the pre-season and during the beginning of the year, so I think that, as we say, hard work pays off,” Pouille said. “The tournament is not over, but I’m very happy to be here now and I’m going to be focused on the next match tomorrow to try to reach my first semi-final. It will be great.”
Perhaps nobody has faced a more difficult road to this stage of the tournament than Raonic. In the first round, he had to play talented Aussie Nick Kyrgios, and then 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka in the second round. The Canadian ousted reigning Nitto ATP Finals titlist Alexander Zverev in the fourth round to set his match against Pouille.
“It’s not fun necessarily before the tournament starts to look at it and say, ‘hey, you play Nick to most likely play Stan in the first two rounds.’ You’re sort of hoping for a bit more time to really work your way into things,” Raonic said. “But then on the other end of it I dealt with those challenges really well. Right now I’m here playing some extremely good tennis, I believe. Hopefully I can make that count.”
Pouille will face a challenge in trying to work his way into Raonic’s service games. The 16th seed Raonic has won 94 per cent of them in his first four matches, facing just five break points in the tournament. He also is the tournament’s co-leader (w/Opelka) in aces with 107. Raonic has won their three previous FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings without dropping a set, and losing serve just once in seven sets.
Pouille arrived in Melbourne having lost five of his past six matches.. But with new coach Amelie Mauresmo by his side, he is set to compete in his third major quarter-final.