Off a vintage performance, Roger Federer gets another chance to prove himself as he goes to war against Kei Nishikori in fourth round action at the Australian Open. This is their first career meeting at a Grand Slam.
(5) Kei Nishikori vs (17) Roger Federer
Kei Nishikori cruised through round three after struggling some the two previous rounds. The first round was his biggest speed bump so far, a five set win over Andrey Kuznetsov where he had a lot of ebbs and flows to his game. In his latest action, Nishikori defeated Lukas Lacko 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. The 5th seed from Japan worked over Lacko’s second serve for 31 of 46 points en route to breaking him four times on nine chances. Nishikori’s serve was steady, winning 83 percent of the first serve points and 67 percent off his second. He was broken just once on two chances. Nishikori finally found his best off the ground with 46 winners and 32 unforced errors. That was by far his best ration after being at 21:30 against Jeremy Chardy in round two and 53:52 against Kuznetsov.
Federer meanwhile put forth a performance against 10th seed Tomas Berdych that turned back the clock. Fed came out fast and furious, hitting clean the entire match as he walloped Berdych 6-2, 6-4, 6-4. His serve was about untouchable as he won 95 percent off his first serve and 59 percent of his second serve points. Berdych never sniffed a break chance and the Swiss Maestro was super clean off the ground with 40 winners and just 17 unforced errors. The 17 UEs was easily his lowest of the tournament. Fed would struggle to make in-roads off Berdych’s first serve, but attacked the Czech’s second serve for 21 of 30 points. The 17th seed was surgical in converting four of five break points in the match. Federe breezed through that Berdych match in just 90 minutes, a perfect set-up for what will be a more physical match against Nishikori. Fed said he felt he struggled in the first two rounds, so it was great for his confidence to get the vintage performance in round three.
This will be the 7th time that these two have met, but the first since the 2015 ATP World Tour Finals. Federer has won three straight in the series with two wins coming at the Tour Finals in 2014 and 2015 and the third win on grass in Halle in 2014. Nishikori’s wins over Federer both came in three sets. In 2013 in Madrid, Nishikori beat Federer on clay and then against in 2014 on hard courts in Miami. Nishikori, despite his great return game, has had his issues when Federer is in rhythm with that powerful first serve. Only once in the three match win streak has Federer failed to win at least 79 percent of the points off his first serve. Federer has also been the better clutch player recently in converted breaks of Nishikori’s serve. For the tournament, Federer has been effective in that category with 14 breaks on 22 chances. Nishikori has 20 breaks on 49 chances. He’ll need better efficiency against Federer to enhance his chances to win.
As for the on-court measuring sticks, we can start with serves. It’s a short story that doesn’t usually end well for Nishikori in this match-up. It’s no secret that the Nishikori serve is the weakest part of his game. He simply does not get the freebies the other top players are capable of on a consistent basis. What he needs to do against Federer is avoid showing too many second serves. That’s where he’s even more vulnerable and where the Swiss can pounce. If Nishikori isn’t getting cheap points on serve, then he needs to use placement and variety to keep Federer off balance. He’s certainly capable of this, it’s just a matter of whether or not he can keep it up over the course of five sets.
The one thing Federer has not had to worry about in his return from injury has been his serve. It’s gotten better over the course of each round, culminating in the Berdych performance. It was a big boost to Fed in the early rounds when he struggled a bit. He used it to bail himself out of jams over and over and will look to do the same against Nishikori. Federer, like Nishikori, will want to avoid too many second serves. Second serves are always easier to tee up, no matter who you are playing against.
The ground battle will be an interesting one as Federer will be facing the most complete player off the ground that he will have seen in his comeback. Nishikori can do it all and it starts with his ridiculous athleticism. He’ll make Federer work if the Swiss isn’t able to keep the points short and aggressive. Think back to Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev last night and you get a picture of what this can look like. Nishikori, like Rafa, punishes players in longer rallies. Federer, like Zverev, is most effective in short rallies where he is ultra aggressive. The only thing that should keep Fed from playing short and aggressive would be a rash of unforced errors that leaves him not confident of making shots.
Although Federer nailed his backhand with confidence against Berdych, that is still the likely target for Nishikori in rallies. Federer usually is more confident with the forehand, but his one hander off the backhand side is still a weapon when it’s right. Nishikori is more deadly off the backhand side. His double hander is one of the best and most consistent in the game. He can hit winners down the line and cross court, which makes him very difficult to stop when his game is in rhythm. His forehand is effective, but I think maybe a bit more prone to errors. For Federer, it may not so much be about targeted any of Nishikori’s weapons as it will be to use his game to get superior court positioning.
Court positioning plays a big role in what Nishikori does. If this match goes baseline to baseline, that’s advantage Nishikori. He can use his variety off the backhand side to craft better angles for himself to finish points in rallies. Federer will do well to come in whenever possible, which can cut down on Nishikori’s time to create those superior angles. The battle at the net could very well decide this and it’s a tough call. Both are great volleyers.
The Pig’s Bottom Line
The Berdych match was the first in a series of tests for Roger Federer. In order to find out where his game truly stands in his return, he has to play the top tier player. Kei Nishikori is the next test. He’ll provide a much better gauge of where Federer is at overall. He will challenge Roger’s fitness in rallies and Fed’s consistency off the ground. That consistency is where I think Nishikori can “steal” this match. Federer has not been forced to be continuously excellent in order to win this tournament. The closest thing he experienced was Zverev’s three tiebreak win over him at the Hopman Cup to start the season. That was a bit more about Zverev’s serve though, something Nishikori doesn’t necessarily match.
Nishikori’s albatross has been consistently beating the cream of the crop in Grand Slams. He proved he can do it with his superb run to the 2014 U.S. Open final, where he beat both Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic. His win against Andy Murray in last year’s U.S. Open quarterfinals, reminded us of that again. The question here is if Federer is still in that cream of the crop category? It’s a proving ground for both players in this one. Having not been challenged athletically like he will be here, I think Federer might still be a bit short on that sort of real match experience.
Prediction: Nishikori wins in five sets