Japan's Kei Nishikori beat Croatia's Marin Cilic in the semi-finals of the Citi Open on Saturday to exact some measure of revenge for his loss to the Croatian the last time they played, in the US Open final exactly 11 months ago.
Nishikori rallied to beat Cilic 3-6, 6-1, 6-4. "It's good to win against a top 10 player and especially Marin," the second-seeded Nishikori said. "We had a battle last year at the US Open. It's great to have revenge today and I hope I can keep it going tomorrow."
After grinding out a win over the 6'6" Cilic, the 5-foot-10 baseliner now aims to chop down 6'10" John Isner. In an all-American encounter, Isner smacked 31 aces and fended off three match points for a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (9) win over Steve Johnson in the second semi-final.
The first Japanese man to reach a Grand Slam final, Nishikori improved to 42-9 this season. Only Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have won more ATP this matches this year, with 48 apiece. The first Grand Slam final appearance for both Nishikori and Cilic occurred on September 8, 2014, in New York, where Cilic won 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. Using that win as a tactical guide, he appeared headed for a similar result in the rematch.
The third seed broke Nishikori's first service game and comfortably won the first set. He smashed one of his nine aces on set point. "The first set was similar to the match we played last year. That was my idea of how to play," Cilic explained.
Things immediately turned rocky from there. Trusting his on-court instincts played a part in Nishikori's win. The Japanese, who received assistance from a trainer for left leg tightness during the second set raced to a 5-0 lead. He also broke Cilic's serve to open the final set.
"I tried to hit a little more aggressive," Nishikori stated. "Some of the shots I have to close my eyes and just hit the ball."
He double-faulted twice in the eighth game as Cilic tied the match 4-4. With the crowd cheering him on, the fifth-ranked player in the world quickly hit back. He broke Cilic for the fourth time and then served out the match to reach his fourth final of the year.
The big-serving Cilic now shifts focus to the remainder of the hard-court season, including defense of his US Open title. "Next matches I'm just going to try to be more focused with my serve, to be more deadly," he stated.
Isner didn't have such concerns against Johnson, who has still never reached a final on the ATP World Tour. Facing one of his best friends, Isner erased two match points with aces, created a mini-break with a forehand volley, and hit a service winner on his second match point.
In their only previous meeting, Isner defeated Nishikori in straight sets at Miami in April. The American considers that performance his best this year. Isner is 0-2 in Washington finals. He won last week in Atlanta.
"I'm so excited to be back in the final here," the eighth seed said. "Hopefully it will be third time lucky."
Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova advanced to the women's final after her top-seeded countrywoman Ekaterina Makarova withdrew before the third set with the score 4-6, 6-3. Pavlyuchenkova will meet American Sloane Stephens in the final.