It was one of the most famous retorts in tennis history, a perfectly executed slam of a quote from the self-deprecating prince of the tour, Vitas Gerulaitis. In his match against Jimmy Connors at the 1979 Masters, Gerulaitis had lost 16 games in a row to the lefty, but managed to weather the defeat at Madison Square Garden.
“Let that be a lesson to all of you,” he told reporters afterwards. “No one beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row!”
Forty-two years later, Kei Nishikori finds himself in a similar place, hoping to recreate that quintessential sports one-liner. Like Gerulaitis with Connors, Nishikori has lost his last 16 games to Novak Djokovic, Nishikori’s upcoming opponent in Saturday’s US Open third round.
Oh, Nishikori, who’s from Japan, says he’s up for the challenge, okay. But he doesn’t take us for fools either. Nobody wants to face the greatest player in the world in the third round – arguably the greatest player of all time, who is just five games away from the first man to win a Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969.
“I’d rather have someone lower down,” Nishikori said.
Bless his honesty.
All in all, Djokovic is 17-2 against Nishikori, with the most recent win at the Tokyo Olympics last month. But there’s something about that 16-0 mark that seems to elicit punchlines from players. When asked on Thursday night if he has Nishikori’s number, Djokovic paid tribute to Gerulaitis’s comic genius when he nodded and agreed.
“Actually, yes,” said Djokovic.
What is this? A blatant outburst of bravado bordering on disrespect for an adversary? It would be unsportsmanlike and out of Djokovic’s playbook to claim he has another player’s number. But before anyone could put Djokovic’s brash proclamation on Twitter, he reached back as if to grab something and added “in my phone”.
Do you understand? He has Nishikoris telephone number, in case he wanted to text his prospective opponent something along the lines of “Sweet 16” or “See you on the track for No. 17!”
Instead, Djokovic showed his humble side. Instead of giving bulletin board food, he showered Nishikori with praise.
“I don’t have anyone’s number on the pitch until I win,” said Djokovic, adding: “He’s one of the fastest and most talented players I’ve seen in my life, in my career.”
Despite the one-way traffic in this pairing, there is one aspect of the streak that stands out. It started after Nishikori defeated Djokovic in their most notable encounter, the US Open semifinals in 2014. Nishikori sent Djokovic, then No. 1, 6-4, 1-6, 7-6(4), 6 to Outside. -3, before losing to Marin Cilic in Nishikori’s only grand final.
“I think it was one of my best matches,” Nishikori said of the win over Djokovic. “That’s why I think it’s a little bit better feeling playing here. I mean, even though he’s the best player, I have a good memory here to play the US Open and beat him here before.”
The only other time Nishikori defeated Djokovic was in 2011, in Basel, Switzerland, during their second meeting. No other player has dominated Nishikori as much as Djokovic.
But believe it or not, Djokovic’s streak against Nishikori is not his best. He has a 17-0 lead over Gael Monfils overall (apparently someone beats Monfils 17 times in a row). Djokovic also has 14-match winning streaks against Cilic and Stan Wawrinka, according to the ATP.
Against Rafael Nadal, his longest streak of wins is seven games, which he has done twice, and he is 30-28 over all against the Spaniard. Djokovic’s longest winning streak against Roger Federer is five straight years, from 2015 to 2019, and he is 27-23 ahead of Federer.
But Djokovic, while great, is not perfect. Nishikori said the key to beating him is finding the right balance between patience and aggression. He recalled being very aggressive when he won in 2014.
“I have to be patient,” he said. “I still have to play great tennis to beat him. At the same time I have to be aggressive. He’s not going to give me free points, so I have to earn the points. Being aggressive is the message.”
If he sounds a little confused on the subject, he can be forgiven. It’s a daunting task. Nishikori doesn’t just try to beat the number 1 player, who beat him 16 times in a row. He also tries to prevent Djokovic from becoming immortal.
If Djokovic wins the US Open, he will not only become the first player, male or female, to win a Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988, he will also break the tie between him, Federer and Nadal, with a record 20 major career titles.
Perhaps the pressure will work in Nishikori’s favour. He may be the Roberta Vinci of the 2021 US Open. Vinci got in the way of Serena Williams’ quest for a Grand Slam, beating her in a semifinal at the 2015 US Open. Williams had won all four of their singles en route to that day, and she and her sister, Venus, had also beaten Vinci in a doubles.
But the Italian player turned upstart and ruined the party. Nishikori was asked if the increasing pressure on Djokovic might also help him play spoiler.
“Yes,” he said, leaning back with a sly smile.
It wasn’t exactly a sentence worthy of Gerulaitis’ hall-of-fame retort. But for the understated Nishikori, there was certainly humor in it. The real question may be: Can anyone beat Kei Nishikori 17 times in a row?