KEY BISCAYNE, Fla.—The expectations were that Nick Kyrgios would be the center of attention on Friday night when he faced Kei Nishikori for a spot in the Miami Open final. ESPN was so high on his showman’s skills—as well as his penchant for viral-worthy controversy—that it handed the 20-year-old Aussie its primetime 7:00 P.M. slot for the second straight night, and left No. 1 Novak Djokovic to labor through the heat of the afternoon.

After a slow start, Kyrgios did his best to live up to those exceedingly high—or exceedingly low, depending on your point of view—expectations. He was the one who hit the gasp-inducing 135-m.p.h. serves, and twirled his racquet above his head before sending a viciously hooking forehand into the corner for a winner. Kyrgios was also, of course, the one who yelled “towel!” in the direction of an unsuspecting ball girl, jawed with chair umpire Fergus Murphy and barked complaints in the direction of his player box. And as he had all week, he was the one who lit a fire in the capacity crowd when he nearly came from a break down to steal the second set.

On this night, though, it was Nishikori, his clinical game, and by extension the old-fashioned sport of tennis, that ended up being the star attractions. It was a big evening for the world No. 6. He was trying, after nine years on tour, to do something that he had done just once before, and something that many of us have been waiting for him to do for a long time: reach his second Masters final. With Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka all long gone from Crandon Park, he was likely never going to have a better opportunity.

Taking His Talents to South Beach

Taking His Talents to South Beach

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For years, Nishikori has been a proficient winner of titles at the 250 and 500 levels. Now that he had turned 26, though, it seemed fair to wonder whether he had reached a ceiling. Forget the Grand Slams for a moment: Why couldn’t he use his obvious talents against the world’s best players, his fellow Top 10ers, in a 1000? Did he not see himself as a big-event guy? Did he not need that success the way the Big Four did? With those questions in mind, I asked at the start of 2016 whether this was a “make or break” year for Nishikori. A little hyperbolic, or overly apocalyptic? Maybe. But this was the type of match, one where he had more experience and the better all-around game than his opponent, that I had in mind when I asked. This was the type of match Kei needed to win.

Nishikori silenced any doubts with a confident, efficient, at times brilliant and never hesitant 6-3, 7-5 win over Kyrgios. He hit more winners and made 16 fewer errors than the Aussie. He won 77 percent of his own first-serve points, and 67 percent of Kyrgios’ second-serve points; once the rallies began, Nishikori was in control. The biggest difference, not surprisingly, came on the backhand side; Nishikori was happy to pound the ball crosscourt all night with Kyrgios. Aside from the fact that they each had two hands on the racquet, there was no comparison between the two strokes. While Kyrgios stood straight up and blocked the ball back with an abbreviated swing, Nishikori threw his racquet across his body and over his shoulder with free-flowing acceleration. He used the shot as if it were a second forehand.

Taking His Talents to South Beach

Taking His Talents to South Beach

On Thursday night, Milos Raonic made Kyrgios look like a consummate all-around player. Nishikori did the opposite: Much like Murray has done, Kei exposed Kyrgios’ weaknesses with his ultra-solid ground game. Nishikori forced errors from Kyrgios' backhand, and he won points by stretching him wide to his forehand side. After watching Djokovic track those same balls down from David Goffin earlier in the day, Kyrgios’ relative lack of bendability was obvious. Once again, while this tall player—Kyrgios is 6’4”— has an advantage on the serve, he’s at a disadvantage when he’s forced to scramble. For the moment, Djokovic’s 6’2” remains the ideal height for tennis.

Nishikori, of course, is a few inches shorter. And that will always be a hindrance, especially when it comes to getting free points on his serve. When it went off in the second set on Friday, Kyrgios was able to take advantage and boss his way back into the match. It looked like Nishikori might be heading for another three-setter; he’s the master of pulling out deciding sets, in part because he lets lesser players win sets they shouldn’t win and push him to the brink.

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Taking His Talents to South Beach

Taking His Talents to South Beach

Nishikori looked determined not to let that happen on Friday night. With Kyrgios serving at 5-6, Nishikori played with a masterful mix of bravery and margin. On one point, he took a step forward, sent a couple of precision-guided missiles into the corners and finished the rally with a beautifully measured topspin forehand that looped upward and fell safely out of Kyrgios’ reach. Then Nishikori topped himself to end it, breaking Kyrgios for the match with a lunging volley after a haywire all-court rally.

Kei has, finally, taken his talents to South Beach—or nearby Key Biscayne, anyway—and taken them to another Masters final. There’s a sleek power and coiled athleticism to his game when it’s clicking; if the tennis fans of Miami came to see Kyrgios put on a Friday night show, they saw a much better one from Nishikori.

Images from Anita Aguilar/TENNIS.com