This was a meeting of the top ten on paper only for it was the very definition of perfunctory. Novak Djokovic confronted world number eight Kei Nishikori in what should have been a challenging encounter. It wasn’t.
This was a match, decided in three sets 6-3,6-2, 6-4, that reinforced the gulf between the top three and the rest of the top ten. Being Nishikori was like trying to win an AFL flag from outside the top four. History, talent, class and poise, for now, were against him.
Djokovic was stretched more by the ball boy – literally in an arm bender behind his back – than by Nishikori.
Being the under-dog on Australia Day should, if you were clutching for straws, be a good thing. And Kei Nishikori was absolutely clutching at straws but Australia’s nominated celebration day offered him no succour. This was a rout of self-inflicted wounds.
This was as bad as Nishikori has played in the last year. He appeared hampered by a right knee that stopped him powering into his shots, but still he did not play the sort of tennis that took him to number eight. He made it easy for Djokovic. His shot selection was ragged, his execution poor.
It took until the third set for Nishikori to break Djokovic’s serve – every previous time he had a break point he was monstered by the Serb – and then he followed it by dropping his own serve the next game in soft manner. Nishikori was more challenging in the third set but the match winning point illustrated the difference: a rally followed by a backhand cross court so precise it Djokovic could have landed it on a freckle.
After the slogging four and a half hours he took to defeat Gilles Simon in the fourth round, Djokovic played as a fresh man.
“I have not practiced yesterday. I didn’t hit a tennis ball. Sometimes it’s good to rest your mind and body. Less is more sometimes.”
Earlier Roger Federer did like Novak and won in a workmanlike three sets.
Now two of the three greatest players of the modern era, if not ever, find themselves meeting in the semi final of the Australian Open. Disappointingly in some ways it is a round earlier than might have been hoped for.
Djokovic and Federer are 22 wins each in head to head results. That figure is a quirk of timing for they are like two mountaineers climbing a career mountain from opposite sides and finding themselves at a nexus with one walking down the other going up.
“I have played Roger 44 times and Rafa 45 times, it seems half of my career match ups were against those guys,” Djokovic quipped.
Djokovic is in the midst of the sort of flush in which Federer previously found himself.
If he wins here in Melbourne it leaves him to take the French Open and he would sweep the non-calendar year grand slam. He has won four of the last five majors (he was runner up in the French).
Djokovic has won 10 slams now, half of them in Australia. He has never won the French but been runner up there three times. He has won Wimbledon three times and US twice. He is like the inverse Rafa. The French was Rafa’s home ground, the Australian Open is Djokovic’s black short’s venue.
Nadal could win routinely in Paris but not elsewhere. He eventually mastered the other surfaces to overtake Federer as the pre-eminent player.
Djokovic only needs to win in France to claim that hold on the game.