It feels like it’s 2014 all over again. In a rematch of the US Open final from that year, No. 7 seed Marin Cilic and No. 21 Kei Nishikori will meet again at the US Open, this time in the 2018 quarterfinals.
The Croat Cilic won that championship match, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, claiming what remains his one and only Grand Slam title. But much has happened in the ensuing years. Cilic, 29, has since risen as high as No. 4 and reached his second Grand Slam final at Wimbledon (2017). Nishikori, 28, reached a career-high No. 4 in 2015 and earned a bronze medal at the Rio Games of 2016. However, the Japanese superstar has since struggled with a variety of injuries. The wrist woes that kept him out of the 2016 US Open would sideline him for five months. Earlier this year — one in which he was briefly relegated to the Challenger level — his ranking dropped to a seven-year low of No. 39.
Cilic and Nishikori have met on six occasions since that Flushing clash four years ago, with Nishikori now holding a slight 8-6 overall lead in head-to-heads. This will be their fourth meeting in New York. Nishikori was a five-set winner in the second round in 2010, while Cilic claimed a third-round matchup in four sets in 2012. As Cilic acknowledged, Wednesday’s quarterfinal clash will present a new challenge. Nishikori has been striking the ball with a newfound confidence, his penetrating ground strokes on display in wins over Maximilian Marterer, Gael Monfils, 13th seed Diego Schwartzman and Philipp Kohlschreiber.
“Extremely a solid player from the back of the court. Incredible backhand. Great mover, as well,” said Cilic of his opponent. “He's got sweet timing with the ball. Hitting it, for his size, incredibly quick, incredibly fast. Always a pleasure to watch him. He had a little bit of trouble with the injury on the wrist. Great to see him playing this well again, enjoying his time on the court.”
Cilic, meanwhile, has spent a bit more time on court in reaching the quarters, including his four-hour, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 comeback from two sets down against rising Aussie Alex de Minaur, an instant Armstrong Stadium classic that lingered until 2:22 a.m.
Nishikori hopes to avoid the kind of nerves that crept in back in the 2014 final.
“I was really nervous, I remember,” said Nishikori of the Flushing final, the closest he’s come to a major trophy. “I wasn't nervous before the match, but as soon as I got into the court, it was different. I didn't have energy left to play five sets. I remember I wasn't there for the match. Hopefully, I can come back to that stage. It's always special playing Cilic. He's great player. We grew up together. We’re kind of the same age. I know him from the juniors.”
"He has a great serve, plays aggressive,” Nishikori continued. “Especially these last couple of years, he's been playing aggressive and coming in a lot. He can beat anybody now.”