NEW YORK – Kei Nishikori, the next man standing between Novak Djokovic and the completion of a calendar-year Grand Slam at the U.S. Open, really would prefer not to be participating in the matchup that’s scheduled for Saturday.
“I mean,” Nishikori said, “that’s very obvious.”
He’s got a point. For one thing, the No. 1-seeded Djokovic has won all 23 matches he’s played at the four most important tournaments in tennis in 2021. That means he is five victories away from a perfect 28-0 mark that would make him the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all four major tennis singles championships in one season.
For another thing, Nishikori explained, “You can see my record.” Yep, that’s not in his favor at all —Djokovic is 17-2 against Nishikori, including 16 consecutive wins. Nishikori is not some pushover, either: He was a 2014 finalist in New York and has been ranked as high as No. 4.
And yet, there is another way to look at this entirely, a point of view several players expressed, that essentially boils down to: If someone has to attempt to block Djokovic’s bid, it might as well be me.
“It depends on the player. Some players are not scared and see it as a challenge: ‘OK, maybe I can be the one who can stop him,’” said Karolina Pliskova, the women's runner-up at the U.S. Open in 2016 and Wimbledon this year. “Maybe not many, but I’m sure they’re out there.”
The 56th-ranked Nishikori might roll his eyes and remark, “Easy for them to say.”
Also in the offing for Djokovic is a 21st career Grand Slam singles trophy, which would break a tie for the men’s mark he currently shares with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Neither of them is in the field; both are done for the season because of injuries.
So as other players scan the bracket — or don’t; Nishikori is among those who say they generally prefer not to look ahead at what eventually could await — they are left with what amounts to a conflict of a desire for self-preservation and a wish for a shot at glory.
“Players want to have a crack at guys like that. They want to play those guys. They want to play those matches,” Britain's Cam Norrie, who lost to Federer at Wimbledon and to Nadal at the Australian Open and French Open this year, said last month. “And it’s nice going into those matches being the underdog, with all the pressure on Novak. A lot of players, including myself, would love playing him and take it as a great challenge and a great experience."
Alas, Norrie never got that chance at the U.S. Open, where he was seeded 26th but lost in the first round.
Then there is someone like No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, who doesn’t really care what the road to the ultimate goal looks like.
He was the runner-up to Djokovic at Melbourne Park this year and to Nadal at Flushing Meadows in 2019 and is considered part of a group of younger men ready to start accumulating major titles. He could play Djokovic only on the tournament’s last Sunday.
“We’re here to not let him win the U.S. Open,” said Medvedev, who is 3-5 against Djokovic. “If I talk just for myself, I want to win the U.S. Open. I don’t care if it’s in the final against a qualifier or against Novak.”
This question of “Oh, no!” vs. “Let’s go!” became real for Matteo Berrettini at Wimbledon in July. The Italian's Slam final debut came against Djokovic and ended in a four-set defeat.
The sixth-seeded Berrettini could meet Djokovic again in next week’s quarterfinals.
“I know he’s trying to do what he’s trying to do. If I had to play against him, I wouldn’t go on court to try to stop him. ... I play for me,” Berrettini said. “What I will tell you is that I like playing at a historic moment like this. Whether he does the Grand Slam or not, getting to be his adversary at Wimbledon and one of the candidates to try to stop him will remain a part of history.”
As for Nishikori, a 31-year-old from Japan, rather than thinking about the long and lopsided history between him and Djokovic, maybe it’s better to focus on this: Of their 19 previous encounters, only two came at the U.S. Open.
One of those was in the 2014 semifinals — and Nishikori won.
Nishikori also could take solace from these words from Djokovic, when asked about his head-to-head dominance since then: “I don’t have anyone’s number on the court until I win.”
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