2016 Wimbledon: Kei Nishikori vs Marin Cilic

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Marin Cilic can book his third straight quarterfinal at Wimbledon, while Kei Nishikori is seeking his first. The pair meet for the 11th time with the 5th seed from Japan owning seven wins over his Croat counterpart.

(5) Kei Nishikori vs (9) Marin Cilic
Nishikori has a pair of straight sets wins in his three here some far this term. The 5th seed comes in off a straight sets victory over Andrey Kuznetsov. Nishikori has tallied 102 winners through three rounds to just 59 unforced errors, a solid ratio overall. On serve, he has shown better since a poor opening round against Sam Groth where he won just 62 percent of the points on serve. Since then, he has won 65 and 69 percent of the points, with his first serve showing improvement. He has been broken twice in each match so far in the tournament.

Cilic too has dropped just one set in three rounds. The 9th seed is coming off a 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 win over qualifier Lukas Lacko in round three. Cilic’s serve was astounding last round as he won 43 of 44 points off his first serve with 19 aces. He’s won at least 88 percent of his first serve points every round at the All England Club this year. Cilic is landing that first serve pretty consistently too with over 60 percent of his first serves getting in play. That’s kept his less effective second serve from being a big point of discussion so far, where he has still been able to win at least half the points in all three rounds. The 9th seed has 149 winners so far with 69 unforced errors.

Through their first ten meetings head-to-head, none have come on grass. That will provide both with an entirely different environment, one that you would expect should favor the bigger game of Cilic. Since Cilic’s straight sets annhilation of Nishikori in the 2014 U.S. Open Final, the man from Japan has won the last two in this series. He beat Cilic in three sets last year in both meetings in Washington, D.C. and Tokyo. This marks the fourth Grand Slam meeting between the two with all three previous slam encounters coming at the U.S. Open. NIshikori beat Cilic in five sets in 2010 with Cilic winning in four in 2012 and straights in 2014.

Despite the numbers in the head-to-head, this figures to be a difficult match-up for Nishikori on this surface. Even though the grass isn’t as quick as it was to start the tournament, it should still add plenty of MPHs to the big game of Cilic. His serve is going to be problematic for Nishikori, but the 5th seed will feel he can put some pressure on the Croat there. Even in Cilic’s 2014 U.S. Open win, Nishikori was able to craft nine break points. Cilic saved eight. That is going to be a big thing to watch on Monday. Cilic has faced just ten break points in three matches, saving all but two of those. If Nishikori can find a way to get into the Cilic serve early and put some pressure on the 9th seed with some break opportunities, it will definitely better his chances of winning.

For Nishikori, he must tighten his serve up to its maximum level. That has been one of the biggest issues for the 5th seed in terms of consistency. His season averages where he wins 72 percent of his first serve points and 55 percent of his second serve points has not gotten a boost from the grass. That’s not terribly unexpected, but it is something that Nishikori really needs to work on to find a way to get some cheaper points. That has been one of his biggest issues on grass when facing players with big games like Cilic.

His last healthy Wimbledon in 2014, it was Milos Raonic who overpowered him. Raonic punished Nishikori with 35 aces and won 85 percent of his first serve points. He was broken just once on seven tries. Nishikori was almost a carbon copy of this year’s averages, winning 72 percent of his first serve points and 57 percent of his second. He too faced seven break points, but was broken three times. I don’t know that there is anything Nishikori can do to change a similar pattern against Cilic, other than having some confidence from beating him in the past.

Cilic will obviously look to play short and sweet points off his serve when possible. Nishikori would not mind getting the Croat engaged into more of a baseline war where he’ll take advantage of his superior athleticism. The only way it seems that the 5th seed can do that consistently is to find a way to get onto Cilic’s serve or hope the Croat has some struggles landing his first serve consistently. The more second serves that Nishikori can get a look at, the better.

If Nishikori is able to get this into more of a rally-driven match, then he has the weapons on both wings to beat Cilic. Cilic’s forehand is powerful, but Nishikori could target his backhand over and over. Nishikori’s shot making would be a large difference maker. Outside of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, Nishikori might be the next best at getting to balls and making unbelievable shots with his forehand or backhand.

The thing that Nishikori can draw on is that superior defense and return is what has undone Cilic in his last three losses on court at Wimbledon. Novak Djokovic found a way to beat him in 2015 and 2014, while Andy Murray did it in 2012. How did they do it? #1, they took care of their own serve. In those three matches, Cilic only saw 12 break chances. He only broke three times. #2, they worked over Cilic’s second serve to the tune of 51, 59 and 67 points won by the opposition in those matches. In two of those three matches, Djokovic and Murray were able to get double digit break chances against the Cilic serve. That is a recipe for success.

So it comes down to which player can execute against the type of player that has given them trouble on this surface in the past. Will Nishikori overcome the powerful serve of Cilic or will Cilic be able to dig deep against a gifted defender? The Pig is going to side with the numbers here. Seven wins to three for Nishikori. Three straight outs for Cilic to elite defenders/returners at Wimbledon, but I will not be shocked to be wrong here and see Cilic use his big serve to carry through to another quarterfinal.

Prediction
Nishikori wins in five sets

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