The Miami Open might have lost star power with the early exits of some of the sport’s biggest names, but the purple Stadium Court was sizzling on Thursday afternoon as Kei Nishikori and Gael Monfils, two of the most athletic players on tour, battled for two and a half hours in the most thrilling match of the tournament thus far.
A boisterous tennis-savvy audience roared time and again as Nishikori saved five match points, and rallied from down 4-5 and 0-40 in the final set, to outlast Monfils 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-3) and advance to the semifinals.
He will face fiery Australian Nick Kyrgios, who beat Canada’s Milos Raonic 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) in the night quarterfinal. The 20-year-old Kyrgios is known for his on-court outbursts and unfiltered comments.
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In the previous round, he was issued a code violation for hitting a ball into the stands. He burst into a tirade against the chair umpire: “Anyone else, like Rafa [Nadal] did that, you would keep it cool. This game is biased as anything. You all know it as well. It’s biased as [expletive], this game. What else has it got to hide? It’s ruined. Absolutely ruined.”
On Thursday night, dressed in a sleeveless basketball-style tank top and a thick gold chain (with a cross that flew off early in the match), Kyrgios imposed his aggressive style on the big-serving Raonic and became the first Australian since Lleyton Hewitt 14 years ago to reach the semifinals of this tournament.
“I knew I was capable of making runs in these events,’’ said Kyrgios, who moves into the top 20 with the win. “I have more experience now. The atmosphere out there was great, a lot of fun.”
He will face one of the game’s best returners in Nishikori.
Standing only 5-10 and 163 pounds, Nishikori, a quiet 26-year-old from Japan, looked like he’d be overpowered by Monfils, a charismatic 6-4 Frenchman who is always a fan favorite. Monfils won the first set with his aggressive style and huge serves, but Nishikori was just getting warmed up.
Midway through the final set, 16th-seeded Monfils was drenched in sweat and in a 4-2 hole. The French fans in the audience encouraged him with “Allez!” and he clawed his way to a 5-4 lead. That’s when No. 6 seed Nishikori dug deep. He saved four match points in the tenth game, a fifth in the twelfth, and rolled to a 6-3 lead in the tiebreaker.
He sealed the victory with a forehand cross court winner.
“When I was down 4-5 and 0-40, I thought I almost gave up the match,” Nishikori said in a courtside interview after the match. “But I tried to play one point at a time and tried to focus on what I had to do, especially my serve. In the tiebreak, I just tried to focus again and fight harder.”
The women’s semifinal wasn’t as dramatic, but it went nearly two hours before 30-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova, the oldest remaining woman in the field, shook off Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland 7-5, 6-3.
Kuznetsova, the 2006 champion in Key Biscayne, is ranked No. 19 and was not considered a favorite coming into the tournament. In fact, she is the lowest-ranked finalist since No. 38 Kim Clijsters won the title in 2005.
Her opponent in Saturday’s final will be 13th-ranked Victoria Azarenka, a 6-2, 7-5 winner of Thursday night’s late match against second-ranked Angelique Kerber. Kerber won the 2016 Australian Open and Azarenka is coming off a title at Indian Wells (California).
Kuznetsova has proven in every round that she still has the endurance, game and fight to make a deep run in a major tournament. All of her victories the past week went three sets, the most impressive a 6-7 (7-9), 6-2, 6-2 win in the Round of 16 over top-ranked and 21-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, who has won eight titles in Key Biscayne.
Asked the key to her victory on Thursday, Kuznetsova replied: “The fighting spirit.”
She conceded she had trouble with the wind, and the sun, and did not feel her forehand or backhand were reliable.
“I was just hanging in there, playing long rallies, trying to do what I do best against her weaker spots, and just keep up … I am blessed I have my body to play so many years and win against good, top players,’’ Kuznetsova said. “It’s great when things come together.”