Taking Aim at Novak Djokovic, Kei Nishikori Wants a Streak of His Own

It was one of probably the most well-known retorts in tennis historical past, a completely executed overhead slam of a quote from the self-deprecating prince of the tour, Vitas Gerulaitis. Going into his match towards Jimmy Connors at the 1979 Masters, Gerulaitis had misplaced 16 straight matches to the lefty, however pulled off the upset at Madison Square Garden.

“Let that be a lesson to you all,” he instructed reporters afterward. “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row!”

Forty-two years later, Kei Nishikori finds himself in a comparable spot, hoping that he may mimic that quintessential sports activities one-liner. Just like Gerulaitis with Connors, Nishikori has misplaced his final 16 matches to Novak Djokovic, Nishikori’s upcoming opponent within the third spherical of the U.S. Open on Saturday.

Oh, Nishikori, who’s from Japan, says he embraces the problem, all proper. But he doesn’t take us for fools, both. No one desires to face the very best participant on the planet — maybe the very best participant of all time, who is simply 5 matches from turning into the primary man to win a Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969 — within the third spherical.

“I’d rather have someone ranked lower,” Nishikori mentioned.

Bless his honesty.

Over all, Djokovic is 17-2 towards Nishikori, with the newest win a straight-sets victory at the Olympics in Tokyo final month. But there’s something about that 16-Zero marker that appears to elicit punch strains from gamers. When requested Thursday night time if he has Nishikori’s quantity, Djokovic paid homage to Gerulaitis’s comedic genius when he nodded and agreed.

“I actually do,” Djokovic mentioned.

What’s this? A blatant burst of bravado bordering on disrespect towards an opponent? It can be unsportsmanlike, and out of Djokovic’s playbook to say he has one other participant’s quantity. But earlier than anybody may put Djokovic’s brash proclamation on Twitter, he reached again as if to seize one thing and added, “in my phone.”

Get it? He’s received Nishikori’s cellphone quantity, simply in case he needed to textual content his upcoming opponent one thing alongside the strains of, “Sweet 16,” or “See you on court for No. 17!”

Instead, Djokovic flashed his humble aspect. Rather than offering bulletin board fodder, he lavished Nishikori with reward.

“I don’t have anyone’s number on the court until I win,” Djokovic mentioned and added, “He’s one of the quickest and most-talented players that I’ve seen in my lifetime, in my career.”

Despite the one-way stream of site visitors on this pairing, there may be one side to the streak that bears noting. It began after Nishikori beat Djokovic of their most marquee encounter, the semifinals of the U.S. Open in 2014. Nishikori dispatched Djokovic, who was ranked No. 1 then, by 6-Four, 1-6, 7-6 (Four), 6-Three, earlier than he went on to lose to Marin Cilic in Nishikori’s solely main remaining.

Nishikori celebrates his upset win over Novak Djokovic in a U.S. Open semifinal in 2014.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

“I think it was one of my best matches,” Nishikori mentioned of the win over Djokovic. “Because of that, I think it’s a little better feeling that I have, playing here. I mean, even though he’s the best player, I have good memory here playing the U.S. Open and beating him before here.”

The solely different time Nishikori beat Djokovic was in 2011, at Basel in Switzerland, of their second assembly. No different participant has dominated Nishikori the best way Djokovic has.

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But imagine it or not, Djokovic’s streak towards Nishikori shouldn’t be his greatest. He holds a 17-Zero benefit towards Gael Monfils over all (apparently, somebody does beat Monfils 17 instances in a row). Djokovic additionally holds 14-match profitable streaks towards Cilic and Stan Wawrinka, based on the ATP.

Against Rafael Nadal, his longest profitable streak is seven matches, which he has completed twice, and he’s 30-28 over all towards the Spaniard. Djokovic’s longest profitable streak towards Roger Federer is 5 straight, from 2015 to 2019 and he holds a 27-23 benefit over Federer.

But Djokovic, whereas terrific, shouldn’t be good. Nishikori mentioned the important thing to beating him is reaching the best steadiness of endurance and aggression. He recalled that when he received in 2014 he was very aggressive.

“I have to stay patient,” he mentioned. “I still have to play great tennis to beat him. Same time, I have to be aggressive. He’s not going to give me any free points, so I have to earn the points. Being aggressive is the key.”

If he sounds a little bit muddled on the topic, he could be forgiven. It’s a daunting job. Nishikori shouldn’t be solely attempting to beat the No. 1 participant, who has defeated him 16 consecutive instances. He can also be attempting to cease Djokovic from attaining immortality.

If Djokovic wins the U.S. Open, he won’t solely turn out to be the primary participant, man or girl, to win a Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988, he may also break the three-way tie amongst him, Federer and Nadal, with a document 20 profession main titles.

Perhaps the strain will work on Nishikori’s favor. Perhaps he’ll turn out to be the Roberta Vinci of the 2021 U.S. Open. Vinci received in the best way of Serena Williams’ quest for a Grand Slam, beating her in a semifinal at the 2015 U.S. Open. Williams had received all 4 of their singles matches heading into that day, and he or she and her sister, Venus, had crushed Vinci in a doubles match, too.

But the Italian participant turned upstart and spoiled the celebration. Nishikori was requested if the strain that’s mounting on Djokovic may assist him to play spoiler, too.

“Yes,” he mentioned whereas leaning again with a sly smile.

It was not precisely a line worthy of Gerulaitis’s hall-of-fame retort. But for the understated Nishikori, there was undoubtedly humor in it. The actual query could also be: Can anybody beat Kei Nishikori 17 instances in a row?