WHAT HAPPENED: One year ago, Kei Nishikori didn't even want to watch tennis. The Japanese right-hander heard a pop in his right wrist while practicing two weeks before the 2017 US Open and missed the remainder of the year.
For a month after his injury, the 2014 US Open finalist shielded eyes from the fuzzy ball, because if he saw matches, he'd want to play.
“I took maybe a month, you know, doing nothing and just doing rehab,” Nishikori said.
He won't have to worry about watching one of Friday's semifinals. Nishikori reached his third US Open semifinal on Wednesday, beating Croatia's Marin Cilic in a rematch of their 2014 US Open final, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4.
Cilic won their 2014 final in straight sets for his maiden Grand Slam title. But Nishikori earned revenge on another sticky day inside Arthur Ashe Stadium to make his third Grand Slam semifinal (2014, 2016, 2018).
“It's always a battle with Marin. It was great tennis today,” Nishikori said.
It will be only Nishikori's third semifinal of the season, a year that started on the ATP Challenger Tour, tennis' equivalent of baseball's AAA. He skipped the Australian Open to continue rehabbing his right wrist and began his year with little fanfare at the Newport Beach Challenger in late January.
Nishikori lost to then-No. 238 Dennis Novikov in his first match back. But four weeks later, Nishikori was in the semifinals of the New York Open, and by April, he was facing Rafael Nadal in the final of the ATP Masters 1000 event in Monte-Carlo.
“Monte-Carlo was really (a) surprise for me... Even though I had some pain, you know, I played through and that gave me a lot of confidence,” Nishikori said.
Cilic trailed 6-8 in their head-to-head but the Croatian had taken two of three at the US Open, and he was dominating the early going Wednesday, pushing Nishikori behind the baseline. The Japanese looked to be struggling as the sun blanketed the court on the seventh extreme-heat day in Flushing. Cilic was a service hold away from 6-2, 5-2, but he let Nishikori back into the quarterfinal.
Nishikori broke in the seventh and ninth games, the latter thanks to a Cilic double fault. Shaky serving – two more double faults – cost Cilic the third-set tiebreak as well.
But the 29-year-old Croatian, who was going for his second Grand Slam semifinal of the season (Australian Open), broke in the fourth set when Nishikori overhit a forehand and served it out to force a fifth.
No one in the Open Era, however, has won more deciding sets than Nishikori, who wins three out of every four matches that require a deciding set (121-39, 76 percent). Nishikori did it against then-No. 2 Andy Murray the last time he played a US Open quarterfinal in Arthur Ashe Stadium (2016), and he did it against Cilic, hitting a forehand return winner on his first match point.
“I wish I don't go to five sets every time but I try to fight every point even though I was a little bit tired,” Nishikori said. “Especially in the end... I really focused every one point at a time.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Nishikori will next meet either two-time US Open titlist Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer's conqueror, Aussie John Millman, who face off tonight in Ashe. Djokovic beat Millman on grass in June, dropping only three games. The Serbian leads his head-to-head with Nishikori 14-2. But Nishikori won their only US Open meeting during the 2014 semifinals. His other victory against Djokovic came in 2011 indoors in Basel.
MATCH POINT: Nishikori is the top-ranked Asian in ATP Rankings history. He reached a career-high of No. 4 in March 2015 and ended 2014, 2015 and 2016 in the Top 10.