Kei Nishikori battled past world No. 2 Andy Murray 1-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 in a nearly four-hour duel Wednesday to advance to the semifinals at the year’s last Grand Slam event.
It was only the second time that Nishikori defeated Murray in nine career meetings, with Murray having taken their previous match in straight sets at the Rio Olympics en route to the gold medal while Nishikori took bronze.
“It was too exciting on the court, but I tried to stay calm,” Nishikori said after the epic win in his first match at Arthur Ashe Stadium since the final here in 2014.
“There were many ups and downs, especially in the beginning. I didn’t start well, but in the end I (played) great tennis, so (I am) very happy,” he said.
Though Nishikori grabbed a 40-0 advantage in the opening game against Murray’s serve, he failed to convert on the triple break chance and managed to hold serve just once in the set as his errors piled up.
A double fault in the fourth game set up Murray’s first break, and in the sixth game Nishikori lost serve again after two consecutive misses at deuce.
Nishikori made 14 unforced errors in the set compared to just three from Murray, who sealed the early advantage with an ace at the 35-minute mark.
The real contest began in the second set as Nishikori’s service game improved and he started to rein in the mistakes.
After the two players exchanged breaks mid-set, rain showers caused a delay of roughly 20 minutes as the retractable roof at Ashe Stadium was closed over the court, giving Nishikori a chance to talk with coach Michael Chang in the locker room.
“That helped me a lot, to regroup the tactics,” Nishikori said. “(I realized) I have to change something to win the match.”
At 4-4, Nishikori played a masterful drop shot winner as part of a love hold, and managed to break Murray in the following game, winning his first set point in a long rally to level the match.
Nishikori continued to win points at the net and with drop shots in the third set, clawing his way back twice after Murray grabbed breaks in the first and seventh games. The Scot earned a third break to go up 5-4, then served out the set to regain the advantage.
But Nishikori roared back in the fourth set as Murray faded, committing 11 unforced errors in the set compared to four by Nishikori. After going down a break in the fourth game, Murray lost serve again in the sixth game despite a 40-15 advantage.
The Japanese ace drew level at two sets apiece with a love hold as the match neared the three-hour mark.
In the decider, Nishikori went up a break in the opening game, but Murray took advantage of a triple break chance in the fourth game to tie at 2-2. After another exchange of breaks, the pair reached 5-5 on serve, with the prospect of a fifth-set tiebreaker looming.
But in the 11th game, Murray set up a break chance for Nishikori with a costly double fault. At 40-30, Nishikori went back to the drop shot, setting up an exchange at the net that ended with the sixth-seeded Japanese player’s forehand shot dropping in Murray’s open court for a crucial late-set break.
“I tried to hit (the drop shot) a little more than usual,” Nishikori said. “I know he is staying back, (so) it worked really well today.”
Nishikori served his way to double match point, and sealed the victory as Murray sent a backhand into the net.
“I have great memories here,” Nishikori said. “I think this is a great opportunity for me and I’m so happy to go to the semifinals.”
The Shimane native faces either Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina or world No. 3 Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland in the semifinals.
It will be his second career appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal, the other coming at this tournament in 2014 when he defeated world No. 1 Novak Djokovic before falling in the final to Marin Cilic of Croatia.