PARIS – Kei Nishikori’s French Open ended with an appropriately erratic performance against top-ranked Andy Murray in the quarterfinals.
The 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (7-0), 6-1 score and the manner of the defeat fittingly reflected how inconsistently Nishikori had been playing. In his previous four matches at Roland Garros, he twice won a set 6-0 and twice lost a set 6-0.
So it was a bit of a guess which Nishikori would turn up Wednesday at a sunny but somewhat windy Court Philippe Chatrier.
Murray got a taste of Nishikori’s stylish shot-making in the first set, then saw Nishikori carelessly give points away in the second set, disintegrate completely after forcing a third-set tiebreaker and lose six straight games despite securing an early break in the fourth set.
“For sure I need more consistency. I should, you know, maintain the level like I did in the first set,” the eighth-seeded Japanese player said. “I think my serve got a little bit bad today, missing too many first serves.”
Murray was happy to profit.
“He played, you know, a very bad tiebreak and a bad game where I broke him in the fourth set, and also in the second (set),” said Murray, listing the errors. “Today (he) was maybe more erratic than usual, but I do think a little bit of that was to do with the conditions being difficult.”
It was a far cry from Nishikori’s five-set win against Murray in the quarterfinals of last year’s U.S. Open, where he had trailed 2-1 in sets before turning the tables on Murray.
When Wednesday’s humiliating tiebreaker ended, a dejected Nishikori took out his aggression on his racket by hurling it down.
His body language spoke increasingly of a player heading for trouble.
After he broke Murray at the start of the fourth set to raise his hopes of a comeback, Nishikori immediately lost his serve. He stood glumly at the far side of the court with his back to Murray, his arms stretched out against the backstop of the court, his head down between them.
The match was still evenly poised — it was only 1-1 — yet it seemed as if Nishikori knew he had missed his chance.
He was right.
The next five games flew by in a blur of Murray’s winners and Nishikori’s unforced errors: one player commanding from the front foot, the other backing off toward defeat.
When Murray broke him again and held for love, making it 4-1, Nishikori sat slumped forward with a towel draped over his head.
He simply never looked capable of launching a comeback. Instead, he seemed listless, almost resigned to losing to Murray for the ninth time in their 11 career matches.
Nishikori needs a rest before he goes to play on grass.
“Well, I try to take couple days off, because I have some issues with my body right now,” the 27-year-old said. “Recover first and try to be ready for Wimbledon.”
2016 runner-up Murray will face 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka in a matchup of three-time major title winners.
Meanwhile, defending champion Novak Djokovic stumbled and tumbled to his knees on the red clay, his racket flying from his right hand as his opponent’s backhand zipped past.
Even Djokovic found it hard to fathom how far he’s fallen, only a year removed from leaving Roland Garros as a player nonpareil, the first man in nearly a half-century to win four consecutive Grand Slam titles.
That he departed this time with a surprisingly lopsided 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 6-0 quarterfinal loss to sixth-seeded Dominic Thiem of Austria left everyone, including Djokovic, pondering the answers to difficult questions.
Did he give up in the last set? What has happened to his once-impervious play? Can he summon that again? Does he need a break from the grind of the tour?
“It’s a fact that I’m not playing close to my best, and I know that,” Djokovic said after his first straight-set loss at a major since the 2013 Wimbledon final. “For me, it’s a whole new situation that I’m facing.”
Since completing his career Grand Slam at the French Open 12 months ago, Djokovic has participated in four majors in a row without earning a trophy. He also lost his No. 1 ranking to Andy Murray.
Djokovic was runner-up at the U.S. Open but lost in the third round at Wimbledon, the first round at the Rio Olympics and the second round at the Australian Open.
“The win here last year has brought a lot of different emotions. Obviously, it was a thrill and complete fulfillment, I guess,” Djokovic said during an expansive and frank news conference. “I have lived on that wave of excitement, I guess, ’til the U.S. Open or so. And at the U.S. Open, I just was emotionally very flat and found myself in a situation that I hadn’t faced before in (my) professional tennis career.”
The 23-year-old Thiem next faces nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, who advanced when No. 20 Pablo Carreno Busta stopped while trailing 6-2, 2-0 after injuring an abdominal muscle late in the first set.
“I mean, it’s a joke how tough it is to win a Slam,” said Thiem, the only player who beat Nadal in one of his 23 clay-court matches this season. “Now I beat Novak. On Friday, (it’s) Nadal. In the finals, there is another top star.”
Simona Halep and Karolina Pliskova reached the women’s semifinals. Halep came all the way back from a set and 5-1 down in the second to defeat Elina Svitolina 3-6, 7-6 (8-6), 6-0. Pliskova beat Caroline Garcia 7-6 (7-3), 6-4.