Great returns for Nishikori, ousts Raonic at the US Open

Last night’s match between Milos Raonic of Canada and Kei Nishikori of Japan felt like a referendum on the future and viability of power tennis. Raonic is 6’5’’, serves at about 140+ MPH, has a booming forehand, and is generally improving in all aspects of his game, especially his touch at the net. He doesn’t have a great backhand, but that is normally not an issue for him. 

NIshikori is talented but made out of very fragile materials; he always seems to be injured. Nobody doubts his abilities when he’s on the court. In this year’s Mutua Madrid Open (a clay court event) he comfortably took out Raonic, Feliciano Lopez, David Ferrer, and had taken a set off Nadal in the final before retiring. He’s crafty, a great mover, and has perhaps the best weapon a player can have for beating a big server: a great return and great anticipation of where that serve is going to be. 

That was the story of their match last night, a wonderful five-setter that lasted until the wee hours (2:26 AM, tying the record for latest finish with two other matches, which is really amazing too, if you think about them all having different start times) and that I devoured every minute of. 

Nishikori had a great read on Raonic’s serve all night, and though the big Canadian did win 82% of his first-serve points, the fact that so many of them were coming back into play had to have been unnerving, a fact which played into his second serve strategy. Nishikori was absolutely all over these, and Raonic only won 47% of his second-service points. It reminded me of Andre Agassi’s strategy of “putting a blister on his brain,” that is, making your opponent’s greatest strength his weakness. 

It’s a risky strategy, especially against a guy who can serve 150 MPH bombs, but I think Nishikori did it better than just about anyone could have. Raonic just had no answer for the Japanese’s returns and blistering backhand passing shots, never letting him get comfortable at the net. NIshikori fought through a few weird moments in the first few sets, wherein he would follow an impressive break of Raonic’s serve with a terrible service game of his own, and it cost him a golden opportunity at the first set. The second set felt much the same, with Nishikori and Raonic never seeming completely comfortable until the tiebreak, when Nishikori took the first point and then held all his service points to win it. He then found his serve rhythm, and dominated his games, losing only five points on serve in the entire third set. 

In the end, the player with more weapons prevailed, and I think a lesson can be drawn from it. Great returns are almost always going to beat great serves, given a large enough sample space. Much like great pitching always beats great hitting in baseball, and the truism that defense wins championships is often borne out, a player who can handle a big serve well is always in a better position than a player who can serve bombs but can’t back them up as well as he should. Pete Sampras was an exception to this, but he never served quite as big as guys like Sam Groth or Raonic. Kei Nishikori, welcome to the big time. Let’s hope you can stay healthy.

In other news, look out for Swiss teenager Belinda Bencic, who showed remarkable poise in defeating Slamless Wonder Jelena Jankovic. Unusually, she has gone from facing the ninth-seeded player to facing an unseeded player in Peng Shuai of China, who has absolutely shredded her competition en route to the quarterfinals. I think Bencic’s magic is going to run out here, as the vastly older and more experienced Shuai has more to draw on for this match. However, Bencic is the real deal. She’s got a great serve and shows no hesitation in striking her forehand for a winner from anywhere on the court. Watch out for her in the future. I also think whoever wins this match will be eliminated in the semis by a resurgent Carolina Wozniacki (who did great work dispatching Maria Sharapova yesterday), but none of this will matter when Serena Williams crushes whoever she gets in the final. She’s hungry, she knows this will save her season, and she’s still the two-time defending champion. Wozniacki was spot on with her serve and is one of the few players on the WTA Tour who can match Sharapova for pure groundstroke power, which she did to great effect against the Russian. Though she is a Slamless Wonder, she’s always been so gracious that I would love to see her get one, and if she plays like this going forward, she will. Just not when Serena is on her game. 

Caroline Wozniacki has had a couple of down years, but has looked strong against great competition this year in New York and figures to be in the conversation in a wide-open women's draw.

Caroline Wozniacki has had a couple of down years, but has looked strong against great competition this year in New York and figures to be in the conversation in a wide-open women’s draw.

A trend that’s developed here, at least on the women’s side, is that of double players, who normally enter the singles draw on a lark, competing and doing quite well against singles players who are normally much more seasoned and prepared. Two cases in point for this tournament are Peng and Ekaterina Makarova, who is currently paired with Elena Vesnina and on serve with the Williams sisters in doubles, and who handily beat an admittedly tired and underprepared Eugenie Bouchard yesterday. It has even happened to some extent on the men’s side, with Marcel Granollers starting off with his hair on fire against Roger Federer before falling short in four sets. Hopefully, this will stimulate interest in doubles, but mainly, it goes to show that skills are applicable across different games and styles of play. 

Makarova’s success will be put to the test against Victoria Azarenka, who had to fight tooth and nail to get past spry but slight qualifier Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia. Krunic’s game is based around finesse and not making mistakes (and staying cool under pressure; I didn’t see the woman show any emotion at all), and when Azarenka bagged the second set, it felt like a foregone conclusion that she would run away with the match. She didn’t, and credit Krunic with continuing to fight, even coming up with some 110+ MPH aces on her serve that kept things very interesting for the former number one. In the end, Azarenka was too seasoned, and Krunic just didn’t have enough firepower. Watch out for her going forward, though. There’s always a place in the game for smooth operators who don’t beat themselves (see one Tommy Robredo).

Finally, some predictions: I think it’ll be Williams over Wozniacki for the women’s title, and when the men’s quarters are set at the end of today, I’ll preview those as well. 

Keep it right here for more updates as we move toward the semis and finals.

Also, Victoria Azarenka should stick to her day job.