On paper and with no health concerns, this appeared to have the potential to be the best opening match in Round Robin play at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. Monday’s match marks the third time that Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori will have met this season. The two previous meetings split with Nishikori winning at the Rogers Cup and Wawrinka taking the return match at the U.S. Open.
(3) Stan Wawrinka vs (5) Kei Nishikori
With the John McEnroe Group littered with the better talent of the two groups in London, every match in this group seems as if it has a big stake feel to it. So this might be the opener for both Wawrinka and Nishikori, but neither wants to be 0-1 after this one with Andy Murray and Marin Cilic left to play. Wawrinka’s level since winning his third Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open has predictably been up and down. He did make the final in St.Peterburg, but was outplayed by Alexander Zverev in the title match. Since then, he has struggled to find consistency with a 2-3 mark that includes losses to Gilles Simon (Shanghai), Mischa Zverev (Basel) and Jan-Lennard Struff (Paris). That’s not exactly Murderer’s Row, but it’s also not exactly something we haven’t grown accustomed to with Wawrinka outside of Grand Slams the last few seasons.
What he does have going for him is that he has seemingly been able to flip the on switch in London or at least so his record says the last three seasons. He’s gone 2-1 in Round Robin play each season with last year marking the first time that he dropped his opening match. Wawrinka would rebound from a crushing 6-3, 6-2 defeat by Rafael Nadal to beat David Ferrer and Andy Murray to get to the semifinals for the third straight year. The Swiss has put himself into the role he likes the best here by downplaying his chances and talking up Andy Murray. Being considered an underdog as the #3 player in the world always seems odd, but with Murray and Novak Djokovic ahead of him, he has that luxury.
Nishikori arrives in London with some middling form as well. He made the final in Basel in October, where he lost to Marin Cilic. That was the meat in a fairly empty sandwich with Nishikori having to retire at the Japan Open due to injury in the tournament prior to Basel and then blowing a late lead against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in his second match last week in Paris. Nishikori will be playing at this event for the third consecutive season. Last year, he did not make it out of group player after accomplishing that feat in his 2014 debut. His problem has been beating the elite players here with his four losses coming to Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer who were ranked inside the Top 3 for all those matches.
Nishikori did get one win over Andy Murray in 2014 in London, but that was the year where Murray was clearly fatigued and crashed out poorly in Round Robin play. Otherwise, Nishikori’s two other wins in London came against 6th ranked Tomas Berdych last year and David Ferrer, a substitute in 2014. Nishikori obviously is up against it in this group then with the #1 and #3 ranked players in Murray and Nishikori, but he does own wins against each of them this year. Despite his success in general, this season has again reflected some of the short comings of the man from Japan. He has just one title (Memphis) with his biggest issue being his failure to win in title matches against the cream of the crop. He’s 0-4 in his other tournament finals this season with losses to Djokvic twice, Nadal and Cilic.
As laid out earlier, all of these Round Robin matches in this group should have a championship match feel to them with as tough as the competition is, so the pressure will be high to perform. Wawrinka showed no worries in that regard when he dispatched Nishikori in the U.S. Open semifinals in their last meeting 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2. Wawrinka was able to continue the physical punishment that Nishikori had endured from his lengthy five set quarterfinal win over Murray. That proved a big difference as Nishikori gradually wore down. The scene was much different when they met at the Rogers Cup in August. There, Nishikori was the aggressor in the 7-6 (2), 6-1 victory. It was the Swiss who looked flat, winning just 54 percent of his service points and spraying over three dozen unforced errors in the match.
So does either of those matches provide much of a read into what to expect in this one? There’s a little you can take from each one, but this sets up entirely different indoors and with both having plenty of rest coming into this tournament. Wawrinka is 3-2 against Nishikori on hard courts in their careers, but this is the first meeting indoors where Nishikori has proven deadly. He’s 10-3 on the surface this season and 60-22 in his career. Wawrinka is just 6-4 in 2016 indoors and 75-60 during his career.
From a pure strategical standpoint, the Wawrinka serve can be a huge weapon in this one, but he also goes against one of the elite returners in the game in Nishikori. However, if Stan gets his serve rolling, then Nishikori has pressure on him to match serve for serve and that’s not necessarily his strong suit. Off the ground, the backhand to backhand exchanges should be fabulous. Wawrinka’s one hander is sublime, but Nishikori’s double hander has power, pace and accuracy to make some brilliant shots as well.
The forehands are both above average, but also are the sides I think where you could see more errors. The interesting part of this match figures to be which wing the other targets more often. Nishikori can get to more balls than Wawrinka, but the Swiss can simply blast them by NIshikori if he’s got his power and precision working together. I would expect this one to very much go back and forth with momentum swings. Neither player arrives with the best form, but both certainly have plenty they can prove this week.
Wawrinka would seem the pick here, but this one probably goes the distance and a good serving day by Nishikori can have him right in line to sneak out a win. I’ll side wih Wawrinka just barely in this one as he’s shown the better light switch “on” ability at this event.
Wawrinka wins in three sets