Defending champion Kei Nishikori fought back from a set down to reach the Japan Open semifinals after a 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 win over Croatia’s Marin Cilic on Friday.
Cilic, who beat Nishikori in last year’s U.S. Open final, looked in imperious form as he won the first set at Ariake Colosseum, but Nishikori kept his cool in a tense second set to break his opponent late and level the match.
Nishikori required treatment on his shoulder after the third game of the third set but then went straight back out and broke Cilic’s serve, giving him the lead for good as he closed the match out with an ace straight down the middle.
Nishikori will next play Benoit Paire — who beat Nishikori in the first round of the U.S. Open in August — in Saturday’s semifinal, after the Frenchman beat Australian enfant terrible Nick Kyrgios 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
Nishikori had already gained a measure of revenge for last year’s U.S. Open final defeat by beating Cilic in the semifinals of the Citi Open in August, but the world No. 6 was more than happy to repeat the achievement in front of an enthusiastic Tokyo crowd.
“Every year it’s more and more amazing,” Nishikori said. “After training I see the crowds and think ‘now I know what it feels like to be a lion in a zoo.’
“I started the match playing well but one bad game cost me the first set. I knew I was playing well, so I knew that if I just concentrated and hung in there, I would have a chance.”
World No. 14 Cilic hit a total of 23 aces to Nishikori’s four, but Nishikori was able to draw on experience having played the Croatian nine times previously on the ATP Tour.
“He kept putting his serves to the opposite of where I thought he was going to put them,” said Nishikori. “He had a lot of aces, but if you can win the important points then you can break his serve. I wasn’t paying too much attention to his big serve. I was just waiting for that one chance.”
Nishikori could only hang on at times — managing to hit the ball just once during a game early in the second set — but the Japanese player held his nerve and broke Cilic at the decisive moment to take the second set.
“I was playing maybe the best tennis I had played all week,” said Cilic. “The turning point was at the end of the second set when Kei broke and won the second set. I didn’t feel like I made any bad mistakes, just a couple of errors and was unlucky to lose the game.”
Nishikori gave the crowd cause for concern when he took an injury timeout early in the third set, but the 25-year-old was in no apparent discomfort as he resumed play and broke Cilic again before wrapping up the match.
“Playing Paire brings back bad memories,” Nishikori said of his world No. 32-ranked semifinal opponent. “I will have to play a more tactical game than I did at the U.S. Open.”
On the other side of the draw, top seed Stan Wawrinka set up a semifinal meeting with Gilles Muller of Luxembourg after beating American qualifier Austin Krajicek 6-3, 6-4.
French Open champion Wawrinka needed just 58 minutes to see off world No. 124 Krajicek, breaking his opponent midway through both sets before forcing him into a wayward return to close out the match.
“It was better today,” said Wawrinka, who had to go to three sets to see off Tatsuma Ito in the previous round. “I was a bit more relaxed and more confident in my game.
“I can still play better, that’s for sure, but the most important thing is to win. A one-hour game, it was a perfect day for me.”
World No. 43 Muller pulled off an upset in the day’s first quarterfinal, beating No. 3 seed Gilles Simon 6-3, 6-4.
“Muller is the kind of player who is never easy,” Wawrinka said of his semifinal opponent, who he has beaten twice already this year.
“Today you saw him serving really well. In a match you don’t get many chances so you can feel the pressure, but we’ll see. I know what I have to do and hopefully I can play a good match tomorrow.”