For the fourth time in 2016, Novak Djokovic faced off against a familiar foe in Kei Nishikori. The Serb was able to squeak by in a match that featured bone bruises, nearly nailing ball boys with an errant shot, a controversial broken string and plenty of drop shots. This matchup in the Internazionali BNL d'Italia had all of the ingredients of an instant classic, and it went the entire distance of a third set tiebreaker as Djokovic prevailed, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(5). The Center Court crowd was given the pleasure of a 3-hour match as well.
Nishikori Strikes First
The match began like any other match. Djokovic started off with a routine hold at 30. Then, by calling for a trainer at the first changeover, the world number one made things interesting. A slip of the racket gave him a bruise on his ankle bone that would require over seven minutes of treatment. The injury gave Djokovic noticeable trouble, and he was broken in the third game. Nevertheless, he pushed on and reached break point in the next game. Nishikori was able to fend off the retaliation break, but he couldn't win a single point in the next game. Leading 3-2, the Japanese star held at 30 to take a 4-2 lead. Two errors from Djokovic in the seventh game gave the world number six a 0-30 edge that he rode to a break at 15. The final game of the set was similar with an easy hold at 15. Nishikori won the set, 6-2.
The biggest takeaway from this set was Djokovic's inability to convert on break points. That would become an early theme heading into the second set.
Djokovic Eventually Responds
Living up to his legend, Djokovic came out firing. He won the first game giving up only one point and jumped out to a 0-40 lead in the second. As mentioned earlier, the 28-year-old couldn't finish break points. A lot of credit can go to Nishikori, who fought off every one to this point, but it really got out of hand. With a big backhand down the line, the world number six got the ball rolling; the comeback was capped off with a big serve that wasn't punched back over the net. After three deuces, Djokovic was given a fourth break point in the game alone, but Nishikori's trusty drop shot closed another window. An eventual hold ended the game and knotted the game score at 1-1. In the third game, the Japanese sensation saw a break point of his own, but, unlike the two in the first set, his opponent was able to save it. The two competitors held through the next three games before the game saw its next dramatic turn.
At 3-2 with the game at 40-15, Djokovic missed his first serve and, in a fit of frustration, wailed the return in the direction of a ball boy. The ball barely missed the young man, but the umpire would not let it go without a warning. The Serb used this moment to light a fire and began to look like a whole different player.
Two more holds brought the game score to 4-3 before Djokovic jumped out to a 15-40 lead--seeing two more chances at his first break of the game. Once again, the Japanese star had all the right shots and saved both break points; his adversary was now a putrid 0-for-9 on break point chances. The game ended without a break and the score was a stalemate yet again, 4-4. With a hold at love, the top-seeded player had some momentum. After using up his nine lives, Nishikori was finally broken on the tenth opportunity and Djokovic won the set, 6-4.
Nishikori Can't Finish Upset Bid
With the flood gates open, Djokovic broke Nishikori's serve to take a 2-0 lead that quickly became a 3-0 lead--despite the 26-year-old's two looks at break points in the third game. The world number six finally got on the board with his second service game, but he still trailed 1-3. By holding serve in the next game, it seemed like the Serb would cruise to victory. The Japanese star had another plan. He followed a hold of his own with a break in the seventh game, and he was back on serve; the chair umpire even alerted Djokovic of a broken string in the process. A hold at 15 brought Nishikori all the way back at, 4-4. Responding to his first break since the first set, Djokovic finished a 30-hold with a big serve. The pressure was now back on his opponent to serve to stay alive. The match almost slipped away as the Serb saw his first match point at 30-40. However, a big forehand saved the match and an even bigger ace allowed the Japanese star to exhale at 5-5. The next two game were relatively easy holds; Djokovic holding at 15, Nishikori at love.
Heading into the third set tiebreak, Nishikori lead in total points won, 106-105. That's how close this match was. The tiebreak began with Nishikori grabbing the first lead, 3-1. Djokovic responded to bring the score to 3-3 at the changeover. An inopportune double fault for the Japanese star gave away his final lead for good. A missed backhand by the 26-year-old capped off a 5-point run that gave the Serb a 6-3 lead and three match points. With a big forehand, Nishikori erased one of them, and a Djokovic forehand error erased another, but an unreturned serve from the world number one ended the match--punching his ticket to the final.
After winning a long, tight match, Djokovic will go on to face a familiar foe in world number two Andy Murray. Their 33rd meeting will be Sunday, and the winner will take home the Internazionali BNL d'Italia title a week after their last encounter.