How do you beat world No. 1 Novak Djokovic? That’s currently the hot-button question in need of an increasingly urgent answer in men’s tennis.
This year alone, 28 men have already stood proud and tall across the net from Djokovic in hopes of finding the winning formula with 27 ending up frustrated in defeat. The only player to taste some semblance of victory was Feliciano Lopez, who didn’t really win at all. Lopez did score the first set of their Dubai quarterfinal, but it was Djokovic’s retirement from the match with an eye infection that landed the Spaniard in the win column.
The next player tasked with stopping Djokovic is sixth-ranked Kei Nishikori. the only Japanese man to ever rank in the top ten. The 26-year-old Nishikori defeated Australian Nick Kyrgios in a straight-set semifinal to earn the opportunity to test his muster against Djokovic in the Miami Open final on Sunday.
The nearly invincible Djokovic is looking to win a third successive Miami Open trophy, as well as to tie Andre Agassi’s record of six tournament titles for the men. Overall, Sunday’s final will be Djokovic’s 19th final in his last 21 tournaments played since the start of 2015. The 28-year-old’s won 14 titles in the last 18 finals he’s played.
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Not surprisingly, the minute Nishikori notched his second final slot of the season - he won a fourth consecutive Memphis title in February - inquiring minds demanded his strategic plan for upending Djokovic.
“I’m not going to do something crazy,” said Nishikori, offering little enlightenment. “I’m playing good and if I can maintain this, I have some chance.”
Supporting Nishikori’s moderate self-belief regarding Djokovic is the fact he’s beaten the Serb in two of their eight previous meetings. Nishikori won their 2011 Basel, Switzerland semifinal, and then journeyed to his lone Grand Slam final after posting a four-set semifinal victory over Djokovic at the 2014 U.S. Open.
“You can say he’s beaten me many times, but every time is a different situation,” Nishikori said. “And for me, I think I have been playing well. Physically I’m okay, so I’m in good condition. I’m looking forward to play (the) final.”
Measured confidence, however, might not be enough against Djokovic, who is in the hunt for his 63rd title overall, and fourth of the year having already succeeded at Doha, Qatar; the Australian Open and Indian Wells, Calif.
Djokovic’s yet to drop a set this tournament, and only semifinal opponent, 16th seed David Goffin, pushed him to a tiebreaker in his 7-6 (6), 6-4 win. In contrast, Nishikori is lucky to still be in action considering he fought off five match points when playing Frenchman Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals.
When Nishikori moved to the U.S. to train at the Nick Bollettieri Academy as a 14-year-old, courtesy of Sony chairman Masaaki Morita’s Tennis Fund, his talent was quickly noticed. He covered the court like a speed demon and his aggressive baseline style was a clear asset.
The Bollettieri powers-that-be immediately labeled Nishikori “Project 45.” The goal was to coach him to a ranking of No. 45, which would surpass Shuzo Matsuoka’s highest ranking of No. 46 to make Nishikori the highest ranked Japanese player in the history of the game. In March 2015, Nishikori reached a career high ranking of No. 4.
“He looks very mature on court, very experienced, as well,” Djokovic said. “He’s somebody that has been around and played so many matches on the big stage. I don’t see him being too overwhelmed or nervous about the occasion.”
Djokovic is a clever champion and never takes any opponent, regardless of ranking, for granted. On, Sunday, he will certainly anticipate Nishikori, a fellow top 10 competitor, to bring his best to the challenge.
Nishikori, however, is currently 2-9 when facing a world No. 1 with eight of those outings coming against Djokovic. So it’s likely he more than anyone understands the need to deliver his finest effort to get the job done.
“I will have to play 100 percent or 120 percent to beat him, but (I’ll) try to enjoy (my) first final here,” Nishikori said of the prospect of winning a 12th career title. “I have nothing to lose playing against him.”