Based on how the 2018 Rolex Monte Carlo Masters have gone up until this point, the second semifinal gave us an answer to just one question: who’s going to get eaten alive by Nadal on Sunday?

Kei Nishikori spent a lot of 2017 sidelined by an injury. He made his comeback this year, winning a challenger title, then reaching the semifinals in New York but his real resurgence happened here in Monte Carlo, as the Japanese defeated Tomas Berdych, Daniil Medvedev, Andreas Seppi and Marin Cilic, losing three sets in the process.

Meanwhile, Alexander Zverev is one of the most in-form players of the last month, he finished runner-up at the Masters 1000 event prior to this one (Miami, lost to
Isner) and advanced to the semifinals defeating Gilles Muller, Jan-Lennard Struff and Richard Gasquet, losing a set in each of the encounters. He only met Nishikori once before, defeating him last fall at the Citi Open in Washington 6-3, 6-4.

It was a battle of two truly exceptional double-handed backhands on Saturday afternoon. The first time one of the servers was troubled came in the seventh game – Nishikori got to a 40-0 lead on his serve with a masterpiece backhand down the line but Zverev played an excellent trio of points, getting to deuce with an exquisite backhand drop shot. On the first very important point of the match, a break point for the German, Nishikori’s backhand clipped the net and landed out to give Zverev a 4-3 lead.

Nishikori produced some stunning shots from time to time, although he seemed pretty tired and lacked intensity in most of the rallies. He couldn’t really get into Zverev’s service games while his games were getting tougher and tougher. This resulted in another break for the German who took the first set six games to three.

The Japanese wasn’t overcome with the disappointment of losing the first set and played two wonderful points, a great lob shot and a drop shot to break Zverev in the opening game of the second. He showcased extraordinary “touch” skills to take the 2-0 lead, while the German suffered a lapse of concentration.

Suddenly, it was Nishikori who dominated the baseline rallies. This period didn’t last long though as the Japanese double-faulted twice in the next game to get broken to love (at 0-30 Zverev hit a beautiful slam-dunk smash). Check it out below:

Both were very up and down in the second, just when it seemed clear that Zverev will now cruise to the end he basically handed Nishikori a break to love in the seventh game. The Japanese didn’t hesitate and broke again to level the match at one set apiece. The German had a 35% first serve ratio in the second set, at one point he missed seven in a row.

The decider started with very tough service games for each of the players, both had to save two break points in order to not fall behind. It was the Japanese now who looked fresher and player much more aggressively. Wonderful drop shots, dictating play with aggressive forehands and courageous net play – everything was clicking for Nishikori at that point. Zverev also improved a lot and got his chance at 3-3 but the Japanese saved it with a beautiful attack and a forehand volley.

Another pivotal moment of the match came with Zverev serving down 4-5, The German fell into a 0-30 hole and in the very next point, the ball bounced off the net in his favor. It wasn’t the end of his troubles as at deuce Nishikori won a point after another drop shot and got off to his first match point. A very deep return made Zverev shank his backhand a the Japanese took the match 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Nadal leads the head-to-head against Nishikori 9-2, but they haven’t faced each other since Rio Olympics 2016, where the Japanese took his second win over his tomorrow’s opponent. The Spaniard also leads 3-0 on clay courts, including a Masters 1000 Final in Madrid four years ago where he led 2-6, 6-4, 3-0 before Nishikori had to retire. After all the tennis that Kei has played this week, he should be way too tired to beat Nadal. On the other hand, he also should have been too tired to beat Zverev.