Second-seeded Kei Nishikori is into the quarter-finals of the Brisbane International for the third time in his career, where he will meet former world No. 10 Marin Cilic, who has proclaimed the 2014 season as a “new beginning” for himself after a turbulent season last year. Of their previous five professional encounters, Nishikori leads the head-to-head series 3-2, with their last meeting taking place in the quarter-finals in Memphis.
The Japanese no. 1 made a comfortable start in Brisbane on Wednesday, as he defeated Australia’s Matthew Ebden 6-2, 6-4 to reach the quarter-finals at the Queensland Tennis Centre. The 24-year-old needed just 62 minutes to advance, breaking serve three times and winning 77 per cent of his points on serve. Nishikori holds a 7-3 record in Brisbane, with his best performance coming in 2012, when he lost to British no. 1 Andy Murray in the semi-final stage. He will be looking to top that performance from two years back, starting with his upcoming obstacle in the 6’6 Croat Marin Cilic.
Having enlisted the help of former no. 1 Michael Chang, Nishikori admits that their few weeks of preparation ahead of the 2014 season have been essential to building his confidence for the Australian Swing.
“I was working with Michael [Chang] for two weeks in California. I went back to the IMG Academy in Florida for another two weeks. I had a good preparation and good training. I was playing a lot, so I’m very confident to come here.”
World No. 37 Marin Cilic has been impressive since the start of the 2014 season, as he began his campaign with a victory over Denis Istomin and followed it up with an upset win over fifth seed Grigor Dimitrov. The Croatian served 16 aces in his 7-5, 7-5 victory to advance to the quarter-finals in one hour and 36 minutes.
Cilic is coming off a rough year as he served a four-month suspension for testing positive for nikethamide before returning in time for the Paris Masters. He also reigned the partnership with fellow Croat and Grand Slam champion Goran Ivanisevic, who has already impacted his game this early in the season and is vital to him because he offers him Grand Slam experience that Cilic was lacking beforehand.
This marks the sixth time that these two athletes face off in professional competition, with the Japanese no. 1 leading the series 3-2. They are 1-1 over the past two years, with Cilic winning their Grand Slam encounter in 2012. As the second seed in the tournament, Nishikori will certainly come into the match as a significant favourite but he will face a confident Cilic, who will be applying new strategies that include an improved serve and more efficient use of his height and size, which could trouble the world no. 11. It will be a tough contest but Nishikori should find a way to steal the match in three sets.
Prediction: Kei Nishikori in Three Sets