As his U.S. Open quarterfinal match stretched from afternoon into evening Wednesday, Kei Nishikori must have thought his tennis career had slipped into some strange time warp.
For the second time in three days, he found himself battling through a fifth set, fighting fatigue as much as his opponent, and somehow ending up as the last player standing.
After the 10th-seeded Nishikori outlasted No. 3 Stan Wawrinka, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7), 6-7 (5), 6-4, he could manage little more than a smile by way of celebration because his 4-hour-15-minute match had robbed him of the energy to do much else.
It did not help that he was less than two days removed from a 4:19 fourth-round victory over Milos Raonic that ended at 2:26 a.m. Tuesday, tying the U.S. Open record for the latest finish. Nishikori became the first Japanese man to make a semifinal of the U.S. championships since Ichiya Kumagae in 1918.
Nishikori, 24, played with all his trademark spunk and energy until late in the match, when he was just trying to hold on to whatever energy he had left.
"Actually, I started this match a little tight," he said. "But my body was OK. I was fighting more and more and got more confidence, especially in the third set."
Nishikori has two days off before the semifinals Saturday, when he will play the winner of Wednesday night's match between No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 8 Andy Murray.
His match was in stark contrast to the women's quarterfinal that preceded it at Arthur Ashe Stadium, when No. 16 Ekaterina Makarova dispatched No. 17 Victoria Azarenka, 6-4, 6-2. Like Nishikori, Makarova reached her first Grand Slam semifinal.
Nishikori's match had not started off well, with him falling behind by 0-3 in the first set. The second set was a bit topsy-turvy as well, but Wawrinka handed him a gift by double-faulting on break point at 5-6.
The third set featured long rallies often ended by a spectacular shot by either player. Nishikori grabbed an advantage, only to squander it. He was serving for the set, up 5-3, but when he was down by 15-30, he unwisely tried a between-the-legs shot that plunked into the net to give Wawrinka a break point that he converted.
Although Nishikori would win the tiebreaker in spectacular fashion, the die of the match was cast. It seemed destined to go the distance.
The fourth-set tiebreaker was equally dramatic, with Wawrinka soaring to a 4-0 lead, only to have Nishikori surge back to tie it at 4-4. Nishikori picked the wrong time to send a few shots long and wide, and a fifth set became necessary.
That set did not turn until Nishikori easily won his service game to take a 5-4 lead, unfurling an audacious drop shot for a winner on game point. Wawrinka then blinked again, double-faulting to give Nishikori two match points. He converted the second into the victory when Wawrinka sent one final forehand into the net.
Nishikori did not raise his arms in victory, managing little more than curling the sides of his mouth toward the sky. In his box, however, his coach led a much more raucous celebration. It was a fitting bit of U.S. Open symmetry that Nishikori's coach is the former U.S. player Michael Chang, who happens to have played the longest match in Open history - a 5:26 semifinal loss to Stefan Edberg in 1992.
The preceding women's quarterfinal was as perfunctory as Nishikori and Wawrinka's was arduous. That was partly because of the state of Azarenka's game, as well as her health, which was sidetracked by food poisoning Tuesday.
It seemed Azarenka was in position to end her season-long slide. The upset-ridden women's draw meant she would not have to face many of the top players. But Makarova proved more than formidable enough to leave Azarenka to contemplate how far she has fallen since reaching the U.S. Open final last year.
The flip side of Azarenka's disappointment was Makarova's glee over making her first Grand Slam semifinal. To get there, she defeated No. 7 Eugenie Bouchard in the fourth round, and now Azarenka, all without dropping a set in the tournament.
"I am feeling amazing," Makarova said. "Finally I am in the semifinals. I have had like five chances in Grand Slams and finally I am here. It's a great feeling."
Makarova, 26, has long been a strong player on the women's tour, but despite her very good serve and the special challenge she poses as a left-hander, she has never broken through to the top level. She has done well in doubles - she and her partner Elena Vesnina won the French Open last year and are also in the doubles semifinals here - but she has been slow reaching the top in singles.
"Before maybe I didn't believe that much that I can come through," she said. "Today definitely was a different feeling, and I really believed to myself that I'm ready to go forward, you know, and to be in the semis."
Azarenka was feeling anything but good in this match. She lost the first set on her serve despite being up by 40-15 in that game, and when she had her serve broken again in the sixth game of the second set, she slammed her racket onto the court. She would not, however, blame any of that on her illness, although her manager said she spent much of Tuesday vomiting.
"I don't really want to talk about it," Azarenka said. "I just, you know, want to give credit to my opponent. She played really well today. Am I disappointed? Yes, I'm disappointed. But I feel like I tried my best with whatever I had."
Makarova turns out to be a major beneficiary of the upsets that have rocked the women's draw. The only player among the top nine seeds who made the quarterfinals is No. 1 Serena Williams, who defeated Flavia Pennetta, the No. 11 seed, 6-3, 6-2, on Wednesday night to earn a semifinal spot against Makarova. The other semifinal pits unseeded Peng Shuai of China against No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark.
But Makarova has not exactly backed into her spot, having played only one set she was even close to losing, a first-set tiebreaker against Bouchard.
Makarova has long been in the shadow of more prominent Russian players, particularly Maria Sharapova. But quietly, Makarova has worked her way up the rankings, where she sits at a career-high 18th.
"I think I'm trying to stay in the shade, you know, a little bit, to be in my world," she said. "I'm not using that much like social networks. Yeah, I can say that I'm maybe closed a little bit. But I'm really enjoying to play on the big stage, the big courts with all this crowd. I'm feeling differently than in other places."
Azarenka started the year ranked No. 2, but a steady slide was kicked off when she lost in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open to Agnieszka Radwanska. Her season went from bad to worse as a recurring foot injury forced her to withdraw from six tournaments, including the French Open. At Wimbledon, she lost in the second round.
"Of course it is disappointing," Azarenka said. "It just is what it is today. It's not the end of the world. It's something I can take positive from this tournament, you know. Two months ago I didn't even think that I was going to be able to play today."
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