NEW YORK -- Kei Nishikori set out to play the US Open with few expectations. He'd had a cyst removed from his right foot in early August, and anyone who has ever picked up a racket knows how important movement is in the game.
"I just started playing points few days ago before the tournament," Nishikori said. "I didn't even know if I should come to New York, you know, so I wasn't expecting nothing actually. But after playing first match and second match, I get more confidence on my foot and it was no pain at the moments. I was start sliding little more. But my tennis was there already. I was really try to play one match at a time and now I'm here."
Where is here?
No. 10 Nishikori emerges from his first Grand Slam semifinal to Monday's US Open final after a 6-4, 1-6, 6-6 (4), 6-3 win over Djokovic. The Japanese player sped up the pace on this one, winning in 2 hours, 52 minutes as opposed to another epic five-setter.
The Serbian has been the world No. 1 player for 110 weeks, and Djokovic only dropped one set at the Open en route to the semifinal. He has reached the semifinals at 17 of the past 18 Grand Slam tournaments.
Movement was especially important for Nishikori -- his game is based on speed, whether it's getting to the corners or the ball coming off his racket. Despite two five-set matches coming into the semifinal, he seemed fresh and aggressive on the court. He kept pressuring Djokovic and ultimately denied him a fifth straight US Open final.
Nishikori won the first set and then lost the second. To start the third set, Nishikori needed about 12 minutes to fight off four break points and stay on serve 2-1.
By the third-set tiebreaker, both men were flushed under their matching white caps as the temperature on the court neared a humid 96 degrees. Nishikori won the first four points of the pivotal set, as Djokovic's unforced errors added up.
"I don't want to talk about conditions; it's same for both of us," Djokovic said. "I think he just played better in these conditions than I did. I just wasn't managing to go through the ball in the court. You know, I wasn't in the balance. Unforced errors. Even when the ball gets back to his part of the court, it's pretty short; he takes advantage of it. On the other side I didn't. That's it."
In the fourth set, Nishikori immediately broke Djokovic and then staved off three break points in the next game to hold. Up 4-3 and serving, Nishikori served three of his five match aces in the game, denying Djokovic an opportunity to get back into the match. The next game, Djokovic was broken for the match.
"My game today was not even close to what I wanted it to be," Djokovic said.
Nishikori was the first Japanese man to reach a US Open semifinal since Ichiya Kumagae in 1918. With the win, he is the first Asian-born man to reach a Grand Slam final. It's a cultural moment that Djokovic, who has put Serbian tennis on the map, could appreciate.
"Well, this is definitely huge for Japan," Djokovic said. "It's a big country, over a hundred million people. This can definitely be a great encouragement for tennis in that country. He's been around for last couple of years. He's been making a lot of success. But playing finals of a Grand Slam and now fighting for title is definitely something different. You know, he has gotten to another level, and I'm sure that people will praise him."
Nishikori's coach is Michael Chang, who won the French Open in 1989.
The knock on Nishikori has been his health. Injuries here and there have kept him from climbing higher in the rankings or going deeper into Grand Slams. It's something he took seriously and has tried to address. In the heat of the semifinal, Nishikori said he felt it was manageable.
"I tried to work on my body a lot this year," Nishikori said. "Even last year, too. But even it at the tournaments I tried to do a lot of rehab training. Offseason tried to do a lot of training stuff, more than tennis. I feel like I'm getting stronger."
The training has helped, but ultimately he may be able to credit the rest he got before coming to New York.
"I may have to rest three weeks before [every] Grand Slam," Nishikori said and smiled.