Kei Nishikori reached the US Open semifinals on Wednesday, holding on for a 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7/5), 4-6, 6-4 victory over Marin Cilic — the man who beat him in the 2014 final.
Novak Djokovic sweated it out from behind the baseline to beat Australian John Millman 6-3 6-4 6-4 and set up a semifinal with Nishikori.
Japan’s Nishikori, who missed last year’s US Open after a season-ending wrist injury, joined compatriot Naomi Osaka in reaching the semis – the first time that a Japanese man and woman have reached the last four in the same Grand Slam.
Nishikori, the 21st seed, will take on either 13-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic or 55th-ranked Australian John Millman for a place in the final.
Nishikori stunned then-world number one Djokovic in the semifinals in 2014 to become the first man from an Asian country to reach the championship match of a major.
But he hasn’t returned to a Grand Slam final since, falling in the US Open semis in 2016.
Ranked as high as fourth in the world in 2015, Nishikori made a cautious return to competition early this year, finally finding enough confidence and consistency to put together a quarter-final run at Wimbledon.
Against Cilic he labored for 4 hours and 8 minutes.
“It was really tough, especially in the end I was up 3-2 and he came back — I don’t know why but it’s always a battle with Marin,” said Nishikori, who stretched his career record over the seventh-seeded Croatian to 9-6.
Nishikori appeared to be in control of the fifth set with a break for a 3-1 lead.
He had two game points for a 5-2 lead but a double fault and a backhand wide opened the door for Cilic, who stormed through, shouting “Got it!” when he secured the break to narrow the gap to 4-3.
But Nishikori broke Cilic in the final game, capturing the match with a blistering service return.
“I try to fight every point,” said Nishikori, who boasts an impressive record in decisive sets.
“Especially in the end I really focus on every point,” he said but added: “I wish I don’t go to five sets every time.”
Djokovic, a two-times champion at Flushing Meadows, struggled with the humidity at Arthur Ashe Stadium but kept his cool mentally, saving the only break point he faced in the first set and wrapping up the opener in an hour.
“(I was) very tested,” Djokovic said. “Almost three hours. It’s midnight now. Credit to John for putting up a great battle.”
Millman is used to the searing heat in his native Brisbane, but needed to leave court to change with the score level at 2-2 in the second, telling the umpire he was unable to put the ball in his pocket because his shorts were soaked through with sweat.
The US Tennis Association said in a statement that Millman was sweating so profusely that the moisture dripping onto court had made the surface too dangerous to play on.
“These night matches the humidity goes through the roof,” Millman said. “It is tricky, but it’s the same for both people. You’re dripping.
“But that’s no excuse or anything. I’d play in a swimming pool if I got to play a quarterfinal every week at a Grand Slam. That would be pretty fun.”
Millman, who beat Roger Federer in the previous round, returned after a brief interval but found no joy against Djokovic’s serve and the Serb broke the Australian in the penultimate game before serving out the second set.
The match was marked by long rallies, with 57 of the pair’s exchanges stretching to more than nine shots.
“I was struggling, he was struggling,” Djokovic added. “Changing a lot of t-shirts, shorts and just trying to hang in there and find a way to win the match.
“Not easy conditions to play in, but it’s the same for both players.”
Djokovic broke early to take a 3-1 leave in the third set but a lapse in concentration allowed Millman to draw level.
The Serb was given a time violation warning and double faulted to offer Millman a break point opportunity before losing his first serve after running down the shot clock a second time.
A forehand error from Djokovic let Millman level at 3-3 but the sixth seed carved out three break points in the next game, converting the third before serving out the match and sealing the win with a backhand volley in two hours, 48 minutes.