Six-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic is back in the semifinals for the first time since 2016 after an exhausted Kei Nishikori retired while trailing 6-1 4-1 in their quarterfinal clash on Wednesday night.
Nishikori had spent 13 hours and 47 minutes on court in reaching the quarterfinals, including three five-set contests and two fightbacks from two sets down, culminating in his five-hour victory over Pablo Carreno Busta on Monday night.
The No.8 seed required treatment and strapping to his right thigh after the first set, but ran out of steam at Rod Laver Arena, calling it quits after slipping a second break back in the second set with the match just 52 minutes old. It was his fifth retirement at a Grand Slam.
“I love to battle, especially against Kei,” said Djokovic, through to the 34th Grand Slam semifinal of his career.
“We’ve played so many matches throughout our careers, especially here a couple of times years ago. I hope he can recover, and it’s not something very serious.”
Djokovic, who has gone on to win the title on each occasion that he has reached the final four in Melbourne, will face France’s Lucas Pouille for a place in the 2019 final. It will be the Serb’s first meeting with the No.28 seed, who is in uncharted territory at a Grand Slam.
Djokovic entered the match with his own injury concerns, having suffered with a stiff back in the late stages of his fourth-round victory over Daniil Medvedev. But there were no signs of any ailments over the course of the 12 games he spent on court.
In contrast, Nishikori was in trouble from the start. Lacking his typical zip around the court and acceleration through the ball, he was broken in the second game of the match, and once again in the sixth.
Things went from bad to worse in the second set, with the medical timeout having minimal impact on his fortunes. Listless and frustrated, he struggled to move to the second ball in the rally, and gave up 28 unforced errors in total before shaking his head and shaking Djokovic’s hand before the change of ends.
“Before the match, I was okay,” Nishikori said. “Of course, I wasn’t fresh-fresh. I thought I was going to be okay. After third game or fourth game when I was serving, my right leg felt heavy. After that I couldn’t really bend my knees and couldn’t jump up, so I decided to stop.
“I’m sure it comes from my past matches, especially the last match. I was moving a lot, wasted too much energy. Could be from that and also something happening today during the match. It’s tough to lose like this, but I’ll try to keep my head up.”
With his 15th consecutive victory over the former US Open finalist, Djokovic’s quest to claim a record seventh crown at Melbourne Park remains on track – and Nishikori’s bad fortune may well be a boon to the Serbian’s prospects.
“As they say, this is exactly what the doctor ordered for me after that match two nights ago, not to spend too much time on the court,” Djokovic said.
“I’ve had plenty of matches this year already. Now I’m in another semifinal, and I’ll do everything to get ready for that one.”
Awaiting him there is Pouille, who prior to this year’s tournament had not won a match at Melbourne Park. But Djokovic will not be underestimating the 24-year-old, whose coaching partnership with Amelie Mauresmo seems to have revitalised his career. Earlier on Wednesday, the Frenchman beat Milos Raonic in four sets.
“I’m looking forward for a battle, obviously,” Djokovic said. “It’s his first semifinal at a Slam, but he has won against (Rafael) Nadal in New York some years ago, and he has taken a couple of scalps at the big tournaments, so he’s not afraid to play his best on the biggest stages in our sport.
“I expect him to come out and be very confident in himself as he always is, and I’m looking forward to it.”