Kei Nishikori opens his campaign in Montreal against Gael Monfils. This is the fourth career meeting between the two with Nishikori taking all three of the previous meetings. Monfils has taken a set in each of the losses.
(5) Kei Nishikori vs Gael Monfils
Rest definitely will have helped Kei Nishikori after he looked gassed in his final two matches at the Citi Open last week. Nishikori lost in the semifinals to eventual champ Alexander Zverev 6-3, 6-4. He was made to work hard in just about every match last week as his ground strokes were off their normal level. Nishikori made a ton of unforced errors #KeiSpray and he was not as efficient converting break points as we often see him. He did force 36 break points, but converted on just ten. That 28 percent conversion clip is well below his season average of 43.
Monfils opened his Rogers Cup run with a three set win over Steve Johnson on Monday 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-1. After the slow start, Monfils was unbreakable on serve the rest of the way. Monfils’ second serve was the major flaw in the opening set, winning just two of eleven points played. He was broken twice on four chances. The second and third sets saw the Frenchman win 42 of 51 points played on serve with no break chances. Monfils said he had trouble moving early in the match, but felt much more “fluid” as the match progressed. Keep those comments in mind for Wednesday’s round two battle.
Monfils’ Snatches Defeat From The Jaws of Victory
Of their three encounters in the past, two came last year on hard courts in Miami and Rio at the Olympics. Both times, Nishikori edged Monfils in a final set tiebreak. Monfils isn’t far off from beating Nishikori obviously, but he’s got his issues in those big points. The most glaring of those losses as the Olympic loss where Monfils held a 6-3 lead in the tiebreak before Nishikori stunned him with five straight points for the win. The loss kept Monfils out of the medal round.
In Miami, Nishikori again fended off multiple match points (5) to secure the win. Monfils led 5-4 with Nishikori serving in the third set of that clash. Nishikori fell into a 0-40 hole, but dug out three times to stay on serve and eventually win it in the tiebreak. The way those two matches went against Monfils late, you have to figure there is some residual build-up in his brain that could come into play in this next chapter.
The Health Factor
There is no doubt that Nishikori and Monfils at 100 percent are scintillating shot makers who can beat anyone, but their bodies have been their biggest adversaries in their careers. Monfils has missed more time this season due to knee problems. Nishikori has had wrist and hip problems at times this season which have caused him to miss some time. Coming into this week, Nishikori certainly needed the off days in between D.C. and Montreal. He played some lengthy matches at the Citi Open and looked well worn out by the end of his run. Monfils as mentioned earlier complained that he had trouble loosening himself up early against Steve Johnson. So as usual, both players fitness levels will be something to watch on Wednesday.
Serve is always going to favor Monfils in this match-up. He has easy power on his serve and can dominate the proceedings this way, when he’s in the zone. Nishikori is tasked with getting on the end of Monfils’ big first serve consistently. The man from Japan had a difficult time reigning in Alexander Zverev’s power in their semifinal clash last week in D.C., so it could be problematic for him if he’s less than 100 percent. Monfils will know that he should get some chances against the Nishikori serve, that’s just the way it goes with Nishikori’s serve not nearly as powerful. Monfils is converting 39 percent of the break points he sees this season. He converted three breaks on four chances against Johnson.
Nishikori will try to use variety as a way to get his serve going into a better pattern. At times, he does get a rhythm where he can dominate, but there were lots of service games in D.C. where he was fighting hard too many times. He needs some easier holds to conserve energy and stress. Even if he’s not getting cheap points, better accuracy and variety can help Nishikori win the court position battle. It’s imperative for him to get good position off his serve. Monfils is one of the handful of players who are as athletic as Nishikori and can match his movement when healthy. If Nishikori starts in good position, then he can work Monfils around the court and force him to make quicker decisions or bail out on points.
When these two go toe-to-toe along the baseline, you can expect some spectacular rallies at times depending on how well they are moving. You probably won’t see two guys who are better at hitting the ball on-the-run. Nishikori has the edge off the backhand side, while Monfils’ forehand is a missile. Both obviously have some consistency issues, so targeting their weaker wing will be a plus. I do think when Nishikori can get zoned into the center of the court, his backhand is a key advantage with the ability to hit it cross-court and down-the-line for winners. Monfils does that more sporadically.
The Pig’s Bottom Line
There are some questions coming into this one with Monfils at least having answered a few of his during that round one comeback against Johnson. Still, Monfils’ body from match to match is capable of a letdown, so I think he’s got to prove he’s feeling good early on. Nishikori’s return game was not on point late last week as he struggled to convert break chances against Tommy Paul and then really had no answeres for Sacha Zverev’s serve. That is a definite worry against Monfils who already has a match under his belt.
Nishikori has done well avoiding first-up losses this year with just one coming back in February to Thomaz Bellucci in Rio. This is a real challenge though in this spot, but Monfils has failed too many times against top ten players to feel overly confident of an upset. La Monf is 0-4 against the top ten this season and he’s lost ten straight dating back to his last top ten win. That came in 2016 over Milos Raonic at this event in Toronto. So that is 1-12 in 2016 and 2017 against the top ten. Maybe he changes his luck this time, but that trend says he finds ways to lose more often than he does to win.
Prediction: Kei Nishikori wins in three sets