As we head into tomorrow’s final between Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori most non-avid tennis fans around the world have likely been hitting google to learn more about these two bit actors in the play that has been professional men’s tennis over the last 10 years. The quick background is this: the two have met seven times before, with Nishikori winning five to Cilic’s two. Perhaps more importantly, Nishikori has won their last three meetings. However such simple statistics can sometimes tell us surprisingly little. After all “nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.” So let’s take a quick look at the three key elements to watch for that will decide the outcome of tomorrow’s match.
1) Is Nishikori Recovered?
We won’t know the answer to this one right away, but by the middle of the second set we should have a good idea. Nishikori was clearly hurting in his match with Djokovic and although he maintained his level well enough to get the job done, the four sets must have taken their toll. There’s no way Nishikori is back to 100%, but the question is whether or not he has enough left in the tank after one day off to bring the energy needed to track down Cilic’s shots for four or five sets.
Look for Nishikori stretching out his legs, especially after longer rallies early for signs he’s feeling tightness or fatigue.
2) Can Nishikori Attack Cilic’s Second Serve?
Cilic’s first serve, when working, is formidable. However his first serve percentage isn’t particularly great and he ranks only 46th on the ATP rankings for % second serve points won. Nishikori is a good returner (as Djokovic was reminded much to his chagrin) and if he can get a handle on Cilic’s second serve the way that Federer failed to then he will make inroads quickly.
Look for how far Cilic must move, or how far he is behind the baseline when playing Nishikori’s second-serve returns. If he’s standing in the center and dictating play with the first ball Nishikori will struggle.
3) How Long Are The Rallies?
This one is pretty simple. Cilic has the clear firepower advantage in this matchup, whereas Nishikori moves and plays defense better. Long rallies means Nishikori is winning the tactical battle. Short rallies means Cilic is. Cilic wants to keep the rally length around or below 4 shots per rally. For him that means big serves and big forehands. Nishikori wants to extend rallies and take away Cilic’s ability to hurt him with one shot.
Look for Nishikori to try to engage in cross-court backhand rallies to extend points and keep the matchup in his favor.
Of the two, Cilic is the more likely to have a drop in his level of play. His performance against Federer yesterday is surely the greatest win of his professional career. Whereas Nishikori has already had his trial by fire (facing Raonic, then Wawrinka, then Djokovic) Cilic benefits greatly from a downright horrid performance from Berdych in the quarter-finals and as such hasn’t been as tested. Nobody can call Nishikori’s presence in the finals a result of luck or fortune – the same can perhaps not be said about Cilic (or at least not with near as much conviction). His two biggest wins were as much a result of bad days from his opponents as good play on his own part. And now, having beaten Federer in the match nobody expected him to win, eyes have turned his way for the first time this tournament with genuine regard.
The question of Nishikori’s recovery is a good one. It might be that he’s over the hump now, especially with this ‘only’ being his 3rd match in 6 days. If the wheels were going to fall off they likely would have against Djokovic. And although he certainly looked fatigued at times he didn’t cramp, which would have been a sure-fire death knell on his chances in the fire. With good massage work and appropriate rest he should be recovered enough to physically be able to compete in the 90-95% range over a sustained period.
This is a match that looks fated to go to at least four sets if not the full distance. Even if Cilic were to come out of the gates firing, Nishikori should be able to do a better job than Federer did of extending play and keeping him out there long enough for a dip in his level. Likewise although the matchup generally favors Nishikori in this contest, Cilic has too many weapons to simply go quietly into the night. It is possible that the match could end in three sets – but only if Cilic comes out utterly flat and fails to awaken or Nishikori is just too physically drained to compete properly.
If Nishikori has his legs beneath him, he has the edge here.