World No. 1 Novak Djokovic will be searching for his third consecutive Miami Open title when he takes on first time Key Biscayne finalist and sixth seed Kei Nishikori in the final on Sunday.
It will be the ninth career meeting between the pair, with Djokovic holding a commanding 6-2 H2H record over Nishikori, including winning their last four encounters - the last of which a straight sets pummelling at the Australian Open earlier this year. That win followed another drubbing for Nishikori at the hands of the 11-time Grand Slam champion, with Djokovic registering a 6-1 6-1 demolition job back at the ATP World Tour Finals last November. However before those two comprehensive clinics put on by Djokovic, Nishikori had troubled his Serbian rival more often than not in their previous matches, including winning their 2014 US Open semi-final and also their final four clash at Basel in 2011 - the year Djokovic famously lost only six matches all season. Nishikori has demonstrated his ability to trouble Djokovic in the past, but it will take the World No. 6 playing at the peak of his powers for him to do so again.
While still far from displaying his best tennis, Djokovic has ultimately cruised through the draw in Miami, reaching the final without relinquishing a set. It’s extremely ominous signs for the rest of the tour when Djokovic can coast to a Masters 1000 final without playing anywhere near the peak of his abilities. Milos Raonic found that out the hard way in the Indian Wells final a fortnight ago, where Djokovic upped his level with consummate ease, systematically tearing apart the Canadian’s game to win a record fifth BNP Paribas Open crown. Djokovic will be gunning for another record on Sunday, as he attempts to break free of Rafael Nadal and capture a historic 28th ATP Masters 1000 crown. He will also be aiming to equal Andre Agassi’s record of six Miami titles after reigning supreme in 2007, 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015. Following wins over Kyle Edmund, Joao Sousa, Dominic Thiem and Tomas Berdych, Djokovic recovered from being a break down in the opening set of his semi-final against David Goffin to post another straight sets victory.
“It was windy, it was humid, it was warm,” Djokovic said. “It was like everything was thrown out there. And to overcome those obstacles and conditions was something that I'm proud of. I managed to stay tough in the right moments.”
If there’s been one blight on Djokovic’s game over the last week in Miami, it’s been his somewhat worrying struggles on serve. Goffin created more break points than Djokovic in their semi-final, while the Serbian was also forced to fend off a massive 15 break chances in his Round of 16 clash with the in-form Thiem. Djokovic has had barely any trouble saving them with clutch baseline play, but with a quality returner in Nishikori looming in the final, it could spell more trouble for the 28-year-old on his own ball.
Nishikori produced his best performance of the season to date in his semi-final contest with the newest member of the top 20 Nick Kyrgios, nullifying the Australian’s massive serve with some fantastic returning and completely dictating proceedings from the baseline to come away a 6-3 7-5 winner. Whenever the rally lasted over five shots Nishikori was in complete control, and when he’s playing his best, he is one of the few players that can match Djokovic blow to blow from the back of the court, especially on the backhand side.
Kei Nishikori celebrates his win over Nick Kyrgios (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Through to his first ever final in Miami - and his first hardcourt Masters 1000 title match - Nishikori has slowly been rediscovering his best form this week in Florida after an indifferent start to 2016. A historic fourth straight Memphis title has been the highlight, but disappointing losses at Brisbane (Tomic) and Acapulco (Querrey), along with underwhelming performances against Djokovic (Australian Open) and Nadal (Indian Wells) have stalled Nishikori’s rise up the rankings. But the most successful player in Japanese history has well and truly hit the ground running in Miami, posting straight sets wins over the dangerous Pierre-Hugues Herbert, Alexandr Dolgopolov and Roberto Bautista Agut in his opening three matches, before saving five match points in a quarter-final epic with Gael Monfils.
Of course Nishikori’s achievements in 2016 pale in comparison with that of Djokovic’s, with the Serbian beginning the year with a “perfect” 6-1 6-2 win over Nadal in the Doha final before going on to secure a record-equalling sixth Australian Open title in Melbourne. A retirement in Dubai against Feliciano Lopez due to an eye complaint remains the only blemish on Djokovic’s 2016 résumé to date, with the World No. 1 winning his two singles matches for Serbia in their Davis Cup tie with Kazakhstan and then going on to prevail once again in the Californian desert a couple of weeks ago. While Djokovic has not been at his most convincing since winning the Australian Open, he’s demonstrated an ability on countless occasions to lift his game significantly when playing for a title, and it’s something Nishikori will certainly have to be weary of come Sunday.
It’s promising for Nishikori that he’s starting to show glimpses of his best form, but taking into account his last two performances against Djokovic, there’s little to be optimistic about. Djokovic has won their last five sets 6-1 6-1 6-3 6-2 6-4 over his two wins at the ATP World Tour Finals and the Australian Open, with Nishikori suddenly transforming into an unforced error machine as he attempted to penetrate through the relentless brick-wall defence of Djokovic. If Djokovic has another off serving day then Nishikori could strike and put the pressure on, but you simply can’t go past the Serbian to add a sixth Miami Open title to his trophy cabinet and break the record for most ATP Masters 1000 titles won on Sunday.
Djokovic and Nishikori after their Australian Open quarter-final in January (Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)