Fatigued Kei Nishikori comes up empty against Rafael Nadal at French Open

AP, Reuters, AFP-JIJI

Playing two straight five-set matches ahead of his French Open quarterfinal against Rafael Nadal was certainly not the ideal preparation for Kei Nishikori.

Already exhausted before setting a foot on Court Philippe Chatrier on Tuesday, the Japanese player was handed a ruthless beating by the 11-time Roland Garros champion.

“I mean, that’s for sure I played too much hours on the court this week, last week. I played too much,” Nishikori said after his 6-1, 6-1, 6-3 loss.

“If I’m not fresh, it’s not easy to stay with (Nadal). He hit very heavy, and he was serving well. He made me play every point.”

In his four previous matches with Nadal on the slow surface, the seventh-seeded Nishikori had managed to win just one set. With the odds stacked against him, fatigue surely did not help his bid to reach the semifinals in Paris for the first time.

Before taking on the 17-time Grand Slam champion, Nishikori had played five-set matches against both Laslo Djere and Benoit Paire. His fourth-round victory over the Frenchman extended over two days, meaning he had a day less than Nadal to recover and get ready for their meeting.

“He was a little bit more tired than usual, no doubt about it,” Nadal said.

There was a sense of inevitability when Nadal and Nishikori stepped onto the court.

Considering Nishikori had a 0-4 win-loss record against Nadal on clay, his chances of narrowing that run on Tuesday were slim — and so it proved to be.

Despite his usual early nerves, the Spaniard raced through the opening set, Nishikori’s face already telling a tale of defeat.

Nishikori broke back for 1-1 but that effort proved to be his undoing as Nadal won the remaining five games to lead two sets to love.

After a quick check on his right arm by the physiotherapist, Nishikori was declared fit to continue and Nadal showed no mercy.

The match was interrupted at 4-2 because of a fast approaching thunderstorm, but the hour-long delay failed to hand Nishikori a lifeline.

Upon resumption, Nadal swiftly ended Nishikori’s nightmare ordeal, wrapping it up on the first match point.

Nishikori is the best deciding-set player since the beginning of the Open era in 1968. Against Paire, he won his eighth consecutive five-setter. Overall, he has a 23-6 record in five-set matches. This speaks volumes about his fighting spirit, but he now wants to learn to finish off matches quicker.

“I think I’ve got to keep trying, to work, to finish in straight sets,” he said. “But that means I’m not, maybe, good enough, tennis-wise, and also mental. I think that’s going to be the next step, because I’m always stuck in the quarterfinals in Grand Slams, and I think next goal is to be in semifinal or final.”

Nishikori was runner-up at the 2014 U.S. Open and reached the semifinals twice at Flushing Meadows, but he never progressed beyond the last eight at the three other majors.

On Tuesday, he was trying to reach his fourth Slam semifinal and be the first Japanese man to achieve the feat in Paris since Jiro Satoh in 1933.

Nadal, who in the semifinals will face Roger Federer for the 39th time, gave Nishikori words of encouragement, insisting that his presence in the world top 10 for five of the last six years is testament to his staying power.

“He’s always a very good player always. Five years ago, he played the final of the US Open,” said Nadal.

“I feel that everybody’s dangerous. And Kei is seven in the world. So he (is) the world’s seventh-most dangerous player in the world today.”