Novak Djokovic has defeated Kei Nishikori 16 consecutive times but he’s not taking anything for granted at the US Open when it comes to his calendar-year Grand Slam quest.
World number one Djokovic will face the 31-year-old Japanese star, whom he leads 17-2 in their all-time rivalry, on Saturday at the US Open to decide a berth in the last 16.
A victory would move Djokovic only four matches from completing the first men’s singles calendar Slam since Rod Laver in 1969 and give him a men’s record 21st career Grand Slam title, one more than Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer, both absent due to injuries.
Asked if he had Nishikori’s number, Djokovic replied with a smile, “I actually do, in my phone,” then added, “I don’t have anyone’s number on the court until I win.”
Djokovic most recently stretched his domination over 56th-ranked Nishikori with a quarter-final victory at the Tokyo Olympics, although the 34-year-old Serbian star then lost semi-final and bronze-medal matches.
“He’s one of the quickest and most-talented players that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Djokovic said of Nishikori.
“It’s important for me to serve well and try to take off the pace a little bit because he likes the pace. He likes to hit the ball early, protect the line.”
Nishikori last beat Djokovic at Arthur Ashe Stadium in a 2014 US Open semi-final, becoming the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam final, which he lost to Croatian Marin Cilic.
“We had some battles, particularly on hardcourts,” Djokovic said. “He’s going to try and make me run and make my life difficult but I’ll make my shots as well.”
Despite being dominated, Nishikori enoys the rivalry with Djokovic.
“He’s one of the best on the tennis tour. It’s not something I love to play all the time because obviously he’s the toughest opponent,” Nishikori said.
“I always love the challenge. Even though I have a bad record, I always try to be positive. I’m sure it’s going to be a tough one, but I’ll do my best.”
– ‘I’m hoping every match’ –
Nishikori will attempt to push the attack as he did to upset Djokovic seven years ago.
“I stayed tough every point. I played pretty aggressive that match,” said Nishikori. “It was one of my best matches. He’s best player, but I have good memory and beat him before here. I can be a little positive being US Open.
“I have to stay patient. I still have to play great tennis to beat him. Same time, I have to be aggressive. He’s not going to give me any free points so I have to earn the points. I think being aggressive is the key.”
The challenge, however, is supreme.
“I think his best thing is controlling the ball. He can hit anywhere from both side. He has been serving well. Best return on the tour,” Nishikori said. “I mean, he has everything.”
And for seven years, he has had his way on the court with Nishikori, who still figures his time will come again.
“I hope so. I’m hoping every match,” Nishikori said. “He’s just tough player.”