At 8pm local time, Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori will face off in an ATP World Tour Finals semifinal for the second time. One of them carries a 3-0 round robin record into the encounter. The other has gone 1-2 in the group stage. But anything can happen, right?
I’m not going to lie: I have not watched a completed Djokovic match at the ATP World Tour Finals this year. Nevertheless, I did see the vast majority of the hardest-fought of all three of the Serb’s wins. The moment he won the first set of that second round robin clash with Milos Raonic, I knew things were looking bright for Djokovic in London.
This was not because Novak Djokovic was playing especially well. While some of the old passion and hunger has returned for the no. 2 seed – who professes that he ‘does not feel vulnerable’ in London – his errors to drop serve twice in the second set were certainly uncharacteristic. Nevertheless, the first set was sheer quality from both sides of the net, and one fact shines out above all others. Despite iffy tennis, a yo-yoing mentality and an unpredictable serve, Novak Djokovic has always come out on top.
By the end of that 7-6(6) 7-6(5) clash with Milos Raonic, the Serb had already topped the Ivan Lendl group. And that was with a full match still to be played before Djokovic could dig his teeth into a fifth straight Tour Finals semifinal.
Novak Djokovic has played at 50 percent of his abilities, and won all three group stage matches – against Dominic Thiem, Milos Raonic, and alternate David Goffin – for the loss of a single set. His 6-1 6-2 thrashing of the latter – the Belgian making his World Tour Finals debut and yet to crack the top ten – cannot be overly lauded in the scheme of things, but it will have strengthened the confidence that the 29-year-old claimed to already have in his possession. With so much still to give, this is almost the perfect scenario for the four-time defending champion heading into the last four. Andy Murray’s hold on the world no. 1 ranking remains as thin as a straining thread.
And while he aided Murray to the Brit’s own spotless round robin record, is Kei Nishikori really going to help him stall Djokovic? Actually, I do not want to rule the Japanese star out. This athletic, able 26-year-old is – for me – tied with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as the most talented senior players yet to win a Grand Slam.
One thing both Nishikori and the aforementioned Frenchman have in common is their ability to break the unwritten code of the ATP World Tour. This code states that there are certain matches any member of the Big Four – from Roger Federer to Andy Murray – are supposed to win, thanks to their rock-hard mentalities and nerveless execution in big moments. Nishikori and Tsonga are two men who, on their day, need have no regard for these invisible laws. Kei Nishikori made this evident as recently as the 2016 US Open quarterfinals. Faced with Murray, the current world no. 5 was staring at a lopsided head-to-head record, a man who had won Wimbledon and Olympic gold, and a large stretch to his first major semifinal of the season. But in the fifth set of their clash, Nishikori held service game after service game he was never supposed to hold. And then he broke serve, twice, in return games which he was never supposed to win. Thus, one of the shocks of the year was sealed: 7-5 in the decider.
Unfortunately for the no. 5 seed, Nishikori will need to cause an even bigger upset on Saturday if he wants to reach a maiden ATP World Tour Finals final. And that is not simply because his head-to-head with Novak Djokovic sustains a rather large deficit (the world no. 2 leads 10-2.) While Nishikori opened his London campaign with a flourish – dominating Wawrinka so brilliantly that Dante Bottini proceeded to fist-pump his way out of the O2 Arena – his 3 hour 20 minute loss to Murray hinted at the return of a recurring issue for the Japan. The core and most consistent enemy of the 2014 semifinalist’s career has been injury. But the one that wrecked his chances in Nishikori’s only Grand Slam final to date was fatigue. The effects of it showed in his limping 6-7(9) 6-4 6-4 finish against Murray. And losing his ensuing dead rubber against Marin Cilic – 3-6 6-2 6-3 – can only have hindered the Memphis champion. Playing with integrity has somewhat knocked his chances against Djokovic.
Honestly, a small part of me thinks Kei Nishikori will pull off a code-breaking stunner against a wayward Djokovic – and then go on to wilt against Andy Murray in the final. The Japanese talent did, after all, take a set off Djokovic in his only previous semifinal at the O2 Arena: going down 6-3 1-6 6-0. But he was also thrashed by the Serb here last season – and I am a master at ignoring my gut instinct.
Yet with my head strongly demanding that I predict a Djokovic victory, I can hardly distinguish what my gut instinct truly is.
PREDICTION: Djokovic in two (tight) sets
(Read the Andy Murray vs Milos Raonic semifinal preview HERE!)
Thanks for reading! Anyone see Kei Nishikori pulling off a shocker? Share your opinions in the comments section!