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Nishikori makes U.S. Open semis with historic victory

AP, Kyodo

Kei Nishikori felt like he had jet lag.

That will happen after playing more than 8½ hours of tennis in two Grand Slam matches separated by about a day and a half. Nishikori did not mind, because he knew he made history. He became the first man from Japan to reach the U.S. Open semifinals in 96 years, outlasting third-seeded Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (9-7), 6-7 (5-7), 6-4 on Wednesday.

“I hope,” Nishikori said, “it’s big news in Japan.”

The match went 4 hours, 15 minutes, and the 10th-seeded Nishikori managed to shake off any lingering exhaustion from his previous victory, which lasted 4:19 and ended at 2:26 a.m. Tuesday, equaling the latest finish in tournament history.

On Wednesday against the Australian Open champion, Nishikori said, “I started a little bit tight.”

“But my body was OK,” he added. “I don’t know how I finished . . . but I’m very happy.”

At least now he gets some time to recover. The semifinals are not until Saturday, when Nishikori will face No. 1 Novak Djokovic. The Serb fended off a fading Andy Murray 7-6 (7-1), 6-7 (1-7), 6-2, 6-4 in a matchup of past U.S. Open champions to reach the tournament’s semifinals for the eighth consecutive year.

“Hopefully I can play 100 percent tennis next round,” Nishikori said.

The last Japanese semifinalist at the U.S. Open was Ichiya Kumagae in 1918. No man from the country had made it to the final four at any major tournament since Jiri Sato at Wimbledon in 1933.

Nishikori already was the first Japanese man to be ranked in the ATP’s top 10 after climbing to No. 9 in May. He came into the U.S. Open without a lot of proper preparation, because he was sidelined after having a cyst removed from his right foot in early August.

Nishikori, who is coached by 1989 French Open champion Michael Chang, had never eliminated top 10 opponents in consecutive matches at a major tournament. The fourth-round marathon win against No. 5 Milos Raonic put Nishikori in his second career Grand Slam quarterfinal; he lost in that round at the 2012 Australian Open.

Wawrinka had won 15 of his last 16 hard-court Grand Slam matches, a stretch that includes a run to his first major semifinal at last year’s U.S. Open and his first Grand Slam championship at the Australian Open.

He also had a lot less wear-and-tear on his body over the past 1½ weeks, thanks in part to getting a walkover when the man he was supposed to play in the third round withdrew with an injury.

But in the end, it was Wawrinka who faltered down the stretch, getting broken to close the match when he slapped a forehand into the net. Nishikori did not really celebrate much, simply looking to the sky as he walked to the net. Chang leaped to his feet and pumped his fists in the stands.

Nishikori credited Chang with helping the mental side of his game and said the coach congratulated him on getting to the semifinals.

“But,” Nishikori noted, “he also (said): ‘It’s not done.’ ”

While the 24-year-old Nishikori put on a brave face before facing Wawrinka, saying he expected to be fine, things did not appear to be OK in the early going. Between points, Nishikori would shake his arms or legs, or flex his hands. During a changeover, he placed a bag of ice on his forehead.

“From outside he looks really dead,” Wawrinka said, “but we know on the court he can play.”

In the final match of the day it took Djokovic a while to push himself out front in a well-played, back-and-forth, 3-hour, 32-minute match that ended after 1 a.m. Thursday.

Djokovic broke the eighth-seeded Murray to go up 3-1 in the third set, then fended off a pair of break points in the next game. On the first, Murray sailed a backhand long to end a 28-stroke point, then leaned over and put a hand on his knee. On the second, he dumped a forehand into the net, then slammed his racket against his right thigh and yelled.

Soon, Murray was turning to his box to say, “Nothing in the legs.” In the fourth set, a trainer came out to deliver a heat pack to Murray.

He had back surgery a year ago, and in his first-round match in New York last week, he barely managed to overcome cramps all over his body. Murray had looked fine since then, but he couldn’t sustain his top form throughout the physically demanding quarterfinal against Djokovic, who won the U.S. Open in 2011 and has played in the past four finals.

In the women’s quarterfinals, top-seeded Serena Williams dropped the first three games before quickly turning things around to defeat 11th-seeded Flavia Pennetta of Italy 6-3, 6-2. Williams, who counts five U.S. Open titles among her 17 Grand Slam trophies, will play 17th-seeded Ekaterina Makarova of Russia in the semifinals.

The 26-year-old Russian reached her first Grand Slam semifinal by beating Victoria Azarenka 6-4, 6-2. Makarova lost her previous four major quarterfinals.

“Before maybe I didn’t believe that much that I can come through,” she said. “Today definitely was a different feeling.”

Azarenka acknowledged she suffered from food poisoning the day before but didn’t want to talk about how it might have affected her. Unusually subdued for most of the match, she smashed her racket after one of her 27 unforced errors gave Makarova a break and a 4-2 lead in the second set.

“I’m not going to make any excuses,” she said. “I did the best I could today. I want to give full credit to my opponent. She deserves to win. She played much better than me today.”

Williams has a 19-match winning streak at Flushing Meadows, including the 2012 and 2013 championships.

“Against her, you can’t wait, you can’t give her time, you can’t fail to push her to her limits — because if you do, she’s a runaway train,” Pennetta said.

In women’s doubles, Kimiko Date-Krumm and partner Barbora Zahlavova Strycova of the Czech Republic advanced to the semifinals with a 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 victory over Czech Andrea Hlavackova and China’s Jie Zheng.