Kei Nishikori, playing his first match since he was eliminated in the fourth round of Wimbledon by Milos Raonic, demonstrated that his ability to hang in there and grind out a win is undiminished. Seeded No. 4 in Washington, DC, Nishikori eliminated Sam Querrey in a second-round match today, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4.
It was an artful, one hour and 52 minute match, but less exciting than the scores might suggest for there was a sameness about each set and an ending that veteran Querrey watchers could see coming from a mile away.
Nishikori is one of those players who seems to be slowly, inexorably, on the rise. He had some spectacular results this year, perhaps none better than his appearance in the final of the Madrid Masters 1000, where he led Rafael Nadal by a set before a back injury Nishikori had been struggling with forced him to quit. A highly seasoned 24-year old, Nishikori has been inside the Top 10 (No. 9 in May) and is currently treading water at No. 11.
Querrey, by contrast, seems to have lost his way. And while the 26-year old is one of those players who seems injury plagued, Nishikori has experienced his own share of physical woes. Querrey has been as high as No. 17 (way back in 2010), but he’s currently trying to fight his way back into the Top 50, from a present No. 63.
The strategy in this one was transparent from the get-go. Querrey wanted to dominate with his atomic serve, and hit as many forehands as possible. Nishikori, by contrast, knew that he could punch his ticket to the next stop on the tracks if he could work on Querrey’s vulnerable two-handed backhand. These days, you can’t survive on the ATP World Tour with a significant weakness, and there are days when Sudden Sam’s looks backhand looks like just that.
Still, both of these men like to strike the ball. The first seven games rolled by on serve, the rallies fierce and brief. I don’t think any of them lasted 10 shots until a rally error by Nishikori gave Querrey a 40-15 lead on his own serve in the seventh game. A rare backhand winner gave Querrey the 4-3 lead.
Nishikori held serve again with ease, to knot the score at 4 apiece. But he struck quickly in the next game.
At love-15, Querrey tried a surprise attack behind his serve, but Nishikori remained poised and drilled a return that Querrey couldn’t handle with the volley on the forehand side. Querrey then missed his first serve and Nishikori nailed the second one with a cross-court unreturnable backhand. Down love-40, Querrey cracked an ace. But facing his second break point, Querrey ended a brief rally with an ugly forehand into the net.
Nishikori served out the set with no further ado, 6-4.
The second appeared to be on the way to duplicating of the first. The games rolled by with no break points — nor any strategic changes — all the way to a 6-5 lead for Querrey.
In the next game, Querrey unexpectedly ripped off two terrific backhands to take a 0-30 lead. Nishikori battled back to 30-all, but Querrey played some excellent defense during the next point and turned the tables, goading Nishikori into a backhand error. Suddenly, it was set point for Sudden Sam.
Nishikori stepped it up, though, and tagged a backhand winner to bring it back to deuce. He then finished off a good quality rally with an attack, and buried the backhand high volley cross-court for game point.
But then he hit his first double fault of the match. After another outstanding display of defense by Querrey in the next point, Nishikori made a backhand error to give Querrey another set point. He converted that one successfully after a rally in which both men unloaded a few wild forehands. The last one, by Nishikori, sailed way over the baseline. It was on to a third set.
This time, Querrey was obliged to fend off a break point in the very first game. But after he completed that hold, the men marched in lock step to 2-all. That’s when Querrey experienced one of the costly lapses of concentration that have so hurt his career. He played a couple of lazy, unfocused points and fell behind 15-40. He fended off the first break point with an unreturnable serve, but then he drove a backhand into the net off a Nishikori second serve return to give up the break,with Nishikori to serve leading 3-2.
From that point on, Nishikori did what Nishikori does best. He held serve carefully and competently, and served out the set, allowing Querrey to get as far as deuce in only one game, the eighth, which Nishikori ultimately held to keep his break lead at 5-3.
Although Querrey managed to keep his dim hopes alive with a strong hold, he didn’t win a single point as Nishikori served it out.