ATP Basel: Kei Nishikori survives scare to reach final

Third seed Kei Nishikori had to save two matches points in the second set before battling back to edge Gilles Muller in three sets.

ATP Basel: Kei Nishikori survives scare to reach final
Kei Nishikori celebrates his semifinal win. Photo: Harold Cunningham/Getty Images
Kei Nishikori
2 1
Gilles Muller

Kei Nishikori, the highest remaining seed at the Swiss Indoors, was given everything he could handle by Gilles Muller in their semifinal clash, with the third seed needing to save two match points to book his place in the final with a 4-6, 7-6(3), 6-3 victory. After Nishikori got off to a quick start, it was Muller who took control and dictated for the better part of the first two sets. But the second set tiebreak seemed to shift the momentum to Nishikori, who would grind his way through the decider to reach his second final in Basel.

Muller battles back to take opener

It was clear almost immediately in the first set that the longer the rally, the bigger the advantage to Nishikori. Muller was going to need to use his big serve to keep rallies short and while that worked in the first game, he started to struggle in his second as the strength of Nishikori’s return began to negate the Luxembourger’s biggest weapon. The third seed carved out a pair of break points with some strong hitting from the baseline and converted the second when Muller missed a forehand to take a 2-1 lead.  

Gilles Muller pumps his fist during his semifinal loss. Photo: Harold Cunningham/Getty Images
Gilles Muller pumps his fist during his semifinal loss. Photo: Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

Both men would hold their next services games with ease. In the sixth game, some sloppy play from Nishikori, including botching an easy volley and a double fault allowed Muller to push him to deuce. But the Japanese would rally to hold. In the following game, a net cord drew an error from Muller to give Nishikori break point. But as the net cord giveth, the net cord taketh away. The third seed’s return would clip the net cord and sail wide. In the very next game, the sloppy play from Nishikori continued and he found himself down 15-40. He saved the first break point with an ace, but mis-hit a backhand on the second to level the set at 4-4.

After Muller held to take his first lead since the opening game, it appeared that the tables had turned, as now it was the Luxembourger who was dominating the rallies. His strong baseline play gave him a break/set point at 5-4, 30-40, but he drove his return long. At deuce, his improved play was on display as he outduelled Nishikori at the baseline, finishing with a forehand winner up the line. At the second time of asking, he drew a backhand error wide to take the opening set.

Nishikori survives in tiebreak

Everything seemed to reset to start the second and revert to how the early stages of the opener was played. Nishikori seemed to be back on top, pushing Muller around in the rallies. In a mirror image of the first set, the Japanese used his strong baseline play to bring up a break point in the third game, but this time, a strong net attack from Muller drew an error. There was a nervous moment in the fifth game, as the Luxembourger stumbled as a Nishikori shot floated past him. It appeared as though he rolled his ankle, as he stood testing it out for several seconds. It did not appear to affect his play, however, as he easily held and did not call the trainer.

Nishikori lunges for a backhand on Saturday in Basel. Photo: Harold Cunningham/Getty Images
Nishikori lunges for a backhand on Saturday in Basel. Photo: Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

Proceedings continued on serve and, just like the first set, Nishikori found himself serving to stay in it at 4-5. History seemed doomed to repeat itself as the Japanese dumped a forehand into the net to give Muller match point. But the third seed was up to the task, saving it with a brilliant lob winner. However, he butchered a serve and volley on the next point, dumping the easy volley into the net, to give a second match point. Once again, Nishikori was able to survive, saving it with an ace.

Serving to stay in the match a second time, Nishikori had no trouble, holding with ease to force a tiebreak. In the breaker, after Muller hit aces on his first two service points, the Japanese finally got a return in play at the third time of asking and drew an error with a deep shot to take the minibreak lead 3-2. Muller was struggling to keep his forehand in play and soon gave away a second minibreak to trail 6-2. On the second set point, Nishikori ripped a backhand volley winner to send the match to a decider.

Third seed wears down Muller

Nishikori seemed to be in trouble early to start the third, as he was forced to dig out of a 0-30 hole in the first game of the set. But the Japanese managed and after that, service games became very routine. Neither man was having much success in making inroads on the return through the early stages of the third. In the sixth game, that changed. Some sloppy play from Muller on his second serve points saw him fall behind 30-40. A weak approach shot set up Nishikori for the passing shot winner to claim the break and take the 4-2 lead in the deciding set.

Nishikori hits a backhand during his semifinal win. Photo: Harold Cunningham/Getty Images
Nishikori hits a backhand during his semifinal win. Photo: Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

Consolidating was tricky, as Nishikori needed to battle through a deuce to hold, but he managed and moved to within a game of victory. Muller was not about to give the match away, putting on a service clinic in what proved to be his final service game. Serving for the match, the third seed raced ahead to a 40-0 lead. He missed a backhand on the first match point, but drew an error on the second to book his place in the final.

By the numbers

Nishikori withstood 20 aces and 84 percent of first serve points won by Muller, preying on the Luxembourger’s second serve, which he only won 47 percent. Nishikori himself was solid on serve, winning 70 percent of his first serves and 67 percent of seconds. Both men managed two breaks, even though Muller had six break points to Nishikori’s five.

Nishikori will take on Marin Cilic in the final.