2017 Mutua Madrid Open QF Preview: Novak Djokovic vs Kei Nishikori

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Novak Djokovic will seek to continue his dominance over Kei Nishikori when they meet in the Mutua Madrid Open quarterfinals. Djokovic has beaten Nishikori ten straight times since Nishikori’s famous upset in the 2014 U.S. Open semifinals.

(2) Novak Djokovic vs (6) Kei Nishikori

Djokovic edged a tight affair with Feliciano Lopez in the round of 16 by a final of 6-4, 7-5. The Serb produced some of his better serving numbers in quite some time, winning 80 percent off his first serve and 62 percent off his second. He was not broken a single time in the match. That marked the first time since his second match of the season in Doha that Djokovic was not broken on serve. Perhaps it was the closed roof? Lopez served well in his own right, winning 83 percent off his first serve and 57 percent off his second. Djokovic was able to craft five break chances though and took advantage of one in each set.

Nishikori looked much improved over his opener in Madrid as he dispatched of David Ferrer 6-4, 6-3. The match was interrupted by rain one game into the second set, forcing the roof to close for the duration of the match. It mattered very little to a mostly locked in Nishikori who broke the Spaniard twice in each set. Nishikori ate up Ferrer’s second serve, taking 11 of 19 points. The 6th seed also showed marked improvement with his own serve, broken just once on two chances. That was a vast change from his three set win over Diego Schwartzman, where Nishikori offered up 13 break chances and was broken on four occasions.

nWo: Nishikori’s Chances Against Djokovic v.2017

The lopsided head-to-head reads eleven wins for Novak Djokovic and just two for Kei Nishikori. It also shows ten straight wins for Djokovic now in the series with three of those coming at the Masters level on clay. That includes Djokovic’s 6-3, 7-6 (4) win over Nishikori in last year’s Madrid semifinals. Since Nishikori’s four set stunner over Djokovic at the 2014 U.S. Open, clay has been the surface where he has offered the most problems to the Serb. Of their ten matches since that U.S. Open encounter, Nishikori has won just three of the 24 sets they have played. Two of those sets won by Nishikori have come on dirt, but both were in Rome.

Yet, here we stand in 2017 with a very different looking Novak Djokovic. The confidence that drove him to the top of the game has given way to frustration and some doubt. That of course is what led him in part to part ways with his entire coaching team prior to Madrid. Djokovic looked pretty mortal again in his opener with Nicolas Almagro. The Spaniard actually had him down 3-0 in the third set before the Serb rallied for a 7-5 win in that final set. That rally however does breed confidence and the play he showed against Lopez on Thursday was indeed some of the best we’ve seen from the Serb.

So what are the chances that Nishikori can end this lengthy losing skid to Djokovic? You can’t say it’s impossible given Djokovic’s struggles this season, but it’s definitely not a comfortable match-up for Nishikori.

Serve, Serve, Serve … Serve is the Word

Starting with Djokovic, he has had a bit of trouble this week making headway against his opponents’ first serves. Almagro won 78 percent of his first serve points against Djokovic, but was broken six times on eleven chances. Lopez as mentioned earlier, won over 80 percent of his first serve points. I don’t think the Serb will find as much resistance in the Nishikori serve, it’s just rarely in that “stout” category.

If you look at just their last three meetings on clay, Djokovic has been into the Nishikori serve plenty with 27 break chances. What Nishikori has been able to do is fight those off rather well, saving 21 of those 27 chances against his serve. Nishikori rarely produces a dominant win rate off first serve though with his 69 percent won last year in Madrid as one of his best numbers against Djokovic. More often, he’s floundering in the low 60s against him and that’s just not a great recipe for winning.

Nishikori will have to hope that Djokovic’s serving success against Lopez was an abnormality. He needs all the help he can get against the Serb’s serve. Nishikori has lacked success in getting enough chances off the Djokovic serve and when he’s gotten more than you might expect, he’s struggled to get key conversions. For most of 2017, Djokovic has been far more breakable that in previous seasons. Some of that due to the elbow injury and some of it simply due to poor serving. For the year, he’s saving about 62 percent of his break chances. That is down from his career average of 66 percent. The last two years, he was at 68 percent in that category.

Baseline Warfare

It will come as no shock to see a lot of this match glued to the baseline. It’s where both prefer to play regardless of surface, but even more so on clay. Djokovic showcased his skills against Lopez on Thursday and will be hoping to maintain that consistency against Nishikori. Of course, he’ll be seeing a better defender and returner in Nishikori. That means Djokovic will need even more to avoid defeat.

There will be plenty of running in this one with Nishikori having that rare combination of speed and on-the-run shot making ability. Djokovic in his own right is a rare defender with his combination of speed, agility and reach. That makes it difficult to get shots past him as Nishikori well knows. When Nishikori competes at his best against the top tier guys, he’s got both wings working. The backhand had long been his best weapon, but it’s his forehand that often makes or breaks him.

When the forehand is working in concert with the backhand, Nishikori becomes one of the toughest players on tour to beat. Consistency is the key there and that ties back to his serve. When Nishikori isn’t worrying about his lack of success on serve, his ground game really takes off. When his serve is problematic, like many, it tends to drag his ground game down a notch or two. Against Djokovic, he needs all cylinders running smoothly to make that engine pur.

For Djokovic, he needs to carry over the confidence from the Lopez match into this one against Nishikori. This is a comfortable match-up for him, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a winning one forever. Nishikori pushed him in both Madrid and Rome on clay last season when Djokovic was playing much better tennis. There have been times this season that Djokovic’s forehand and backhand have both just inexplicably let him down. It could be mental. It could be physical. Regardless, the showing on Thursday gives him hope.

Look for Djokovic to try to go after Nishikori’s forehand still and make the 6th seed prove that he can hit it consistently when it matters. We know Nishikori can annihilate players with his double handed backhand, both up-the-line and cross court. He hits it with such power out of nowhere that it always gives you the wow factor. Djokovic will need to do his best to keep Nishikori off balance to not allow him to set up shop with his backhand.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

The feeling here is if Nishikori can find a focused serve, he has a shot to again push Djokovic to the limit. Whether or not he can do that is the bigger question. Let’s remember this is just Nishikori’s third match back since the Miami Open. That’s when he injured his wrist, the same one that he aggravated again prior to Barcelona. He’s yet to be through a rugged and grueling test like he’ll see physically and mentally on Friday. It’s a great time for him to find out just what shape his body is really in with Roland Garros on the horizon.

My guy says he’s good, but not quite at optimum level just yet due to the layoff and lack of match play against top quality opposition. Djokovic gives him an upgrade in that category, even if the Serb himself has been below par for most of the season. I do like Nishikori to snag a set in this one and given that Djokovic’s level has dipped up and down so often – there is a real chance that Nishikori can craft the upset if he finds close to his best consistently enough.

Both players improved alot from their opening match, so let’s hope we get high quality from both in this one. Despite Djokovic’s ups and downs, it’s difficult to look past him in this one when he’s dominated Nishikori so much. Nishikori will need one of those down serving days from Djokovic or he’s doomed to repeat history and drop #11 in a row.

Prediction: Djokovic wins in three sets

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