September 4, 2014
Kei Nishikori became the first Japanese man for 96 years to reach the US Open semi-finals after a five-set win over Stan Wawrinka. With China’s Peng Shuai already through to the same stage of the women’s draw, we are witnessing something very exciting from the Far East, where tennis becomes more popular by the day.
Nishikori had already equalled the latest ever finish at Flushing Meadows less than 48 hours earlier. To beat Wawrinka 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7), 6-7 (5), 6-4 was a remarkable feat of endurance.
‘I don’t know how I finished that game but I’m very happy,’ beamed Nishikori, who owed his latest piece of history to some typically crisp and inventive stroke-play. Now Nishikori will face Novak Djokovic, after the popular Serb conquered Andy Murray 7-6 (1), 6-7(1), 6-2, 6-4. Murray frustrated his fans after appearing to return to his very best just when it mattered.
The Scot was hitting the ball so sweetly, towards the end of the second set and start of the third, that he looked perfectly capable of causing an upset. Then the unforced errors crept back into his game, along with the familiar problem of back-ache. ‘It’s very late and I’m very tired,’ said Murray, who seemed to lose self-belief at the vital moment. ‘Novak was in better shape towards the end, at least he appeared to be, or perhaps he is better at hiding how he feels.’
Djokovic admitted: ‘It wasn’t the best tennis in the last set or two, we made a lot of unforced errors, but that was because we battled so hard in the first two sets. Shall we party now? No, my coach would hit me with a small baseball bat if I went into the city to party now.’ Djokovic won because he is mentally tougher and more disciplined than Murray. The Brit hasn’t been pushed to healthy limits by his own camp since Ivan Lendl left and Amelie Mauresmo arrived. Djokovic, in stark contrast, can draw upon the ruthless magnificence of Boris Becker, a coach who seems to be giving his man the edge, even though some of us feared the German’s ego would have an adverse effect on Novak.
Another big name fell in the women’s singles, though that has been happening all fortnight. Victoria Azarenka became the latest victim of Ekaterina Makarova, who triumphed 6-4, 6-2. As expected, Serena Williams sailed through her latest test, beating Flavia Pennetta 6-3, 6-2 after shaking off another slow start.
But the new heroes of the Far East are the stars really capturing the world’s attention right now. In both Japan and China, fans are watching their favourites in their millions, as tennis fever takes hold. It will be fascinating to see how much more Nishikori and Peng can achieve in New York and beyond.
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