2016 U.S. Open: Stan Wawrinka vs Kei Nishikori

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Kei Nishikori will look to continue his unbeaten run at the U.S. Open against top ten ranked players when he meets third seeded Stan Wawrinka. Nishikori’s quarterfinal win over Andy Murray marked his fifth career win at the Open against a top ten player against no defeats. Wawrinka seeks his first U.S. Open final after failing twice at this stage in 2013 and 2015.

(3) Stan Wawrinka vs (6) Kei Nishikori

As the third seed, it seems odd to say, but Wawrinka feels like he has kind of flown under the radar a bit. I think that suited him just fine, especially with his quarterfinal showdown with Juan Martin Del Potro. DelPo has been getting heavy press this summer and rightfully so for playing some solid tennis to get his career back on track. Still, there did not seem too many who fancied Wawrinka heading into that quarterfinal match-up. I think the Swiss relishes that “villain” role to an extent and he worked it on Wednesday with the crowd firmly behind Del Potro more often than not.

Both players had their times of struggle in the match, but it was Wawrinka who made a big tactical adjustment in the third set that seemed to change the match. After splitting the first two sets, the Swiss third seed started playing deeper on returns against Del Potro and it paid off. He was able to work better angles and really use his backhand to push Del Potro into uncomfortable positions. Wawrinka wound up wearing Del Potro down for the 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 win. It was a typical match stats wise for the Swiss by the end with a lot of winners, 53, and plenty of unforced errors, 45. He kept the ratio above 1:1 which is always a key for him. Del Potro struggled with just 28 winners and 49 unforced errors by contrast.

Wawrinka really did a nice job with his second serve as he had periods of inconsistency landing his first serve in play. He won 65 percent of the 51 points played off his second serve, a very strong number. His serve got better over the last two sets with the Swiss winning 38 of 50 points played overall and he would face just two break points, one in each set. For the match, Wawrinka was able to break the Argentine’s serve four times on ten chances.

The Nishikori-Murray match in the quarterfinals had all kinds of drama to it. The gong noise was back and it really got under Andy Murray’s skin, so much so, that it seemed to throw him off his game for a large portion of the match. A let call ruling after the gong when Murray had a break point in the fourth set on Nishikori led to a frustrated and lost Murray. The roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium was also closed mid-match and Murray never seemed the same after both events. Despite all of that, Murray still has the match on his racquet at 5-4 in the fifth set. Nishikori never wavered, breaking the 2nd seed and winning the final games to wrap up a 1-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 victory.

Neither player had a clean match with Nishikori racking up 60 unforced errors and Murray tossing in 46. It was the 6th seed from Japan however who came up with big winners and big moments (48 in all). Nishikori also did a good job with his serve late in the match and was workman-like in breaking Murray the entire match. Nishikori would break the Scot nine times on 13 chances. Murray took eight breaks off of Nishikori on 15 chances. Perhaps most telling, Nishikori was the mentally tougher player of the two through all the distractions to earn the second Grand Slam semifinal of his career. Both have come at the U.S. Open.

Sixth Meeting All-Time, Third at a Grand Slam

Friday’s semifinal marks the sixth all-time meeting between Wawrinka and Nishikori. The last came in Toronto this summer where Nishikori bested the Swiss 7-6 (6), 6-1 in the semifinals. Wawrinka seemed to lose his focus in that match after blowing a break lead in the opening set and then failing to convert on a pair of set points in the tie break. Wawrinka wound up with very poor service numbers, winning just 59 percent of his first serve points. He was broken three times on nine chances, while Nishikori was broken just once on four tries.

Their previous meetings at Grand Slams came in 2015 at the Australian Open and in 2014 at this tournament. The 2015 meeting ended in straight sets to Wawrinka, while the 2014 U.S. Open quarterfinal was a wild five set finish. Nishikori came out on top 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7), 6-7 (5), 6-4. In both matches, Wawrinka did what he wanted with his first serve. In Australia, he was nearly untouchable with just one break allowed on four chances. He crushed 21 aces. In New York, Nishikori did get to see ten break opportunities and took three of them. Wawrinka saw double digit opportunities off Nishikori’s serve in both matches, but only broke Nishikori three times on eleven tries in Australia and twice on ten tries in New York.

The big difference between those two Slam meetings was the ground game. In the Australian Open meeting, Wawrinka had 41 winners and 34 unforced errors. In the 2014 U.S. Open clash, he racked up 78 unforced errors with 68 winners. Nishikori finished both matches with under a 1:1 ratio on winners versus unforced errors, but he was a bit more controlled in what he did. Don’t expect Wawrinka to change though, his go big or go home groundies are what have taken him to two career Grand Slam titles.

As for the match itself and tactics, this should be interesting again. These are two baseline brawlers on this surface. Nishikori is obviously a gifted athlete who can get to the net, but he doesn’t seem to mind staying back and going with those long ground exchanges. We did see a good tactical change for Nishikori against Murray with the serve and volley being used and that will give Wawrinka something extra to think about. Wawrinka’s bread and butter on hard courts is those grinding baseline exchanges, very similar to what Murray likes to do. What I’d look for from Nishikori is a mix of some short balls and drop shots to test Wawrinka’s ability or desire to come to the net. Don’t discount more serve and volley as well. The Swiss will need to be alert for the alterations made during the ground exchanges.

Winner, Winner, If You Love Backhands This Match is a Winner

From a shot perspective, these two are fantastic at hitting winners. Wawrinka has the gorgeous one handed backhand that can hit anywhere for a winner, while Nishikori is equally tough with his two hander. The forehand is where Nishikori has been prone to more errors with 34 of his 60 unforced errors against Murray coming off the forehand. Wawrinka’s error count has been highest off his backhand which he hits more often in most matches. That should make for some great backhand to backhand exchanges between these two with that backhand up-the-line being a big shot for both. Whomever hits that with more consistency might just find themselves in the final.

Finally in touching on their serves and the return games, I’m much more apt to say Nishikori is the one that would see his serve let down over the course of five sets. He has shown a bit more consistency in New York with the serve, but there are always going to be challenging moments for him and breaks points to be had. The big question is whether Wawrinka can take advantage. He got dumped on by John McEnroe during the broadcast on Thursday for poor technique in return and that certainly has some value. Still, the most important thing is for the Swiss to convert the key break points. While his conversion percentage has not been stellar these two weeks, he has come up with big breaks when needed. That will be important against Nishikori.

Wawrinka’s biggest issue on his own serve is landing that first serve consistently. When he does, the Swiss is difficult to break down. The Stanimal ebbed and flowed in that capacity in the quarterfinals and would probably settle for something consistent around 60 percent. Nishikori is a solid returner, the best by far that Wawrinka will have faced this tournament. If Nishikori is finding ways to get on the third seed’s first serve consistently, then it is going to be a long day for Wawrinka. That was the case when Nishikori beat him at the Rogers Cup this season.

AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO

So this could boil down to belief between two pretty evenly matched opponents. Both have shown great mental toughness in tight spots this tournament. It’s difficult to say who a longer match would favor. Conventional wisdom might say Nishikori who is now 14-5 in fifth sets of five set matches and has superior athletic talent. Tennis wisdom would say Nishikori might be more apt to break down physically because he has in the past and Wawrinka’s slugging style wears on you – just ask Del Potro.

That makes this a difficult pick. Despite being the third seed, I think Wawrinka is still being thought of as an underdog, especially in light of Nishikori’s win over Murray. The same Murray who many were saying was playing the best tennis of anyone. So that could put Wawrinka back into a comfortable and familiar role where he feels less pressure. The last time Nishikori pulled off a big upset win in the U.S. Open semifinals, he beat Novak Djokovic and then was beaten in straights 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 by Cilic. This has somewhat of a similar feel for me and Nishikori needs to prove he can back up a big win with another … and then perhaps ultimately, one more.

Until he does, give me another villain-esque underdog performance by Wawrinka to just edge what could be an instant classic.

Prediction
Wawrinka wins in four sets

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