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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Marathon man Kei Nishikori secured a monumental upset by sweating out a 6-4 1-6 7-6(4) 6-3 win over world number one Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open on Saturday to become the first Asian man to reach a grand slam final.
In a remarkable display of endurance, Nishikori followed up punishing five-set wins over third seed Stan Wawrinka and fifth seed Milos Raonic with an even more extraordinary effort, grinding down the top-ranked Djokovic in two hours, 52 minutes on a sweltering Arthur Ashe Stadium court.
While the rest of the tennis world was left stunned, Nishikori said he was only a little bit surprised to have denied Djokovic a fifth successive trip to the Flushing Meadows final.
"I was ready to play ... these kinds of players always," said the 10th seeded Nishikori, the first Japanese man since Ichiya Kumagae in 1918 to play in the U.S. Open semi-finals. "Especially this year I have been playing really well. I have been beating those top guys already.
"I was playing really well and really aggressive, and didn't wait for the ball. Even the opponent Novak, I was playing my tennis.
"It’s just amazing, an amazing feeling beating the number one player.
"It was really tough conditions today, felt a little bit heavy and humid too but I guess I love to play long matches and I hope I can recover well for the final."
The 24-year-old Japanese awaits 14th seed Marin Cilic in Monday's final. Cilic defeated world number two and five-times U.S. Open champion Roger Federer in Saturday's other semi-final.
"I don’t know what’s going on," said Nishikori, who is coached by former grand slam champion Michael Chang. "I was a little bit tight; especially it was my first semi-final in a grand slam."
Nishikori arrived at sun-bathed Arthur Ashe Stadium looking fresh despite having played the latest finishing match ever at the U.S. Open on Tuesday in the fourth round against Raonic, when he walked off court at 2:26 a.m. local time.
Two days later Nishikori was forced to go the distance again, out-lasting Wawrinka in a four hour, 15 minute battle.
But the biggest test of all came with gusting wind, stifling humidity and courtside temperatures hovering around 100 degrees (Fahrenheit), turning the semi-final into a survival of the fittest against a surging world number one who had dropped just one set on route to the final four.
"It wasn't easy, you know, playing two five sets and four hours' match," said Nishikori, who logged a total of 11 hours 16 minutes of court time in his last three matches. "It was even tough for me to play today. Especially third and fourth (sets) I couldn't really put effort for every game.
"I tried to concentrate with those important points. Especially last game, you know, I tried to get more energy and tried to concentrate again. You know, I have been doing that well, you know, from couple of years ago. I hope I recover well tomorrow and ready for Monday.
Nishikori, appearing in his first grand slam semi-final, got the match off to a bright start by breaking Djokovic to go up 4-3 on the way to taking the opening set.
But the Wimbledon champion upped his game in the second, dominating play with a pair of breaks before finishing off the set with a thundering ace.
The battle intensified in the third as the two men, sweat pouring off them, exchanged breaks to send the set to a tiebreak.
Nishikori took the initiative, racing to a 4-0 lead before Djokovic staged a rally but could not wrestle the advantage away from the Japanese dynamo who went on to claim the breaker 7-4.
The tiebreak appeared to give Nishikori a huge boost, the 10th seed returning to court and immediately breaking the Serb to take control of the set.
"He (Djokovic) started to play much better, very consistent and being more aggressive," said Nishikori, who had never been past the quarter-finals of any grand slam until the U.S. Open. "I tried to forget about the first and second set and tried to concentrate again.
"I hope it's big news in Japan. I feel the support from Japan even from the TV even though it’s 4 o’clock in the morning but I hope a lot of people watching."
"It's completely opposite side. But I got like 20 message already, even if it's 4:00 a.m.
"Very happy to make another history. It's first time an Asian in the final. So I hope I can win and to make another history."
Editing by Gene Cherry