US Open 2014: Marin Cilic rides new-found joy in tennis to first Major
US Open 2014: Marin Cilic beats Kei Nishikori in straight sets to win his first Grand Slam title in New York
The two names who finally contested the title in New York were certainly not the two predicted to make it all the way to the last day of Grand Slam action in 2014.
Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori had not even reached a Grand Slam final before, because to do so usually meant beating one or more of the four men who have held sway over both titles and finals at the elite tournaments for a decade.
Since Roger Federer won his second Major at the Australian Open in 2004, only four names other than the Swiss, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray have stolen a title—out of 43 consecutive Grand Slams.
Since he won his seventh Major at the Australian Open in 2006, only seven different names have made it to a Major final.
And the last time both names made their Grand Slam final debut at the same time was in 2005: Nadal would beat Mariano Puerta.
So this was something rather special, especially as each man had faced and beaten one of those top men in the semi-finals, and in some style: Nishikori took out No1 seed Djokovic in four sets, while Cilic played what he afterwards described as the best tennis of his life to beat No2 Federer in straight sets.
Indeed both had worked their way through several seeds. No14 seed Cilic beat the in-form No18 Kevin Anderson, the resilient No26 Gilles Simon and the powerful No6 Tomas Berdych. It was reminiscent of the serving, baseline power, and speed that beat Murray here in 2009—and again in Rotterdam this year—and took Djokovic to fives sets in the Wimbledon quarters.
Cilic had been a French Open semi-finalist in 2010, when he reached a career-high of No9, and still just 25 years old, he seemed this year, under his tutelage of childhood idol and compatriot Goran Ivanisevic, to have found the durability and confidence to win again.
Nishikori, who had played hardly a match on the North American hard courts due to foot surgery, faced one of the young guns tipped for the very top, the huge firepower of No5 Milos Raonic: It took him 4hrs 19mins, five sets and a record early-hours finish of 2.30 am. Not content with that, he followed it with a quarter-final over one of those rare Grand Slam champions, No3 seed Stan Wawrinka, in another 4-hour-plus five-setter—and still had the speed, variety and shot-making to beat Djokovic. That made it three of the top five in the world—and he had already scored wins over Federer and David Ferrer this year, and had Nadal down and out in Madrid before picking up a back injury.
Perhaps more pertinent, he had beaten Cilic in their last three matches, including twice this year, though Cilic had won their US Open meeting in 2012.
Such was the quality of their parallel runs, their consistency and flair, their power and precision, that it was anyone’s guess who would come out on top. Would the speed and creativity of Nishikori outplay the tactical accuracy and power of Cilic, or would the long hours in the Japanese man’s legs finally take their toll?
A much cooler evening might perhaps take some sting out of the Cilic serve: certainly he faced a break point in the opening game. But a hold was followed by two love holds and a 134mph ace.
Now relaxed into the kind of form that hammered Federer, Cilic’s forehand was deep, hard, precise, angled, so that even the speed of Nishikori could not break it down.
The Croat earned three break points in the sixth game and showed his own great movement and anticipation to take the last, and sailed to 5-2 with some remarkable forehands onto the sidelines. He served out the set with ease, 6-3, having made 11 winners to just two from his opponent.
Nishikori began to find some rhythm and penetration at the start of the second set, pricked into doing so when he faced three immediate break points. A gorgeous touch drop volley got him to deuce, but another huge forehand from Cilic brought the break.
It was smart play from the Croat, too. After rattling forehand exchanges, he would change the pace with some long sliced backhands, but it was his serve that got him out of trouble in the fourth game, fending off a break back with what Federer described as “old school tennis”: a big serve, big forehand and net put-away.
To rub salt into the Japanese wound, the next Cilic service game flashed by in four aces, and he then broke for 5-2. The big, calm Croat showed his first sign of nerves with a first double fault and a backhand error, to hand a break back, but it was a short-lived reprieve. Cilic struck with a rapier forehand winner down the line to break for the set, 6-3.
Still Nishikori came back at him, though Cilic battled to a hold. The Japanese man served his first ace, too, and tried rushing the net to force the errors on the Cilic serve, but the Croat threw up a perfect lob and then aced to hold.
It was in the fourth game that Cilic pressed home the last dagger, proving himself strong and determined in defence against a tiring Nishkori. Cilic transitioned into attack to break, and despite a spirited come-back from the Japanese man—he very nearly broke back at 2-4—Cilic appeared almost nerveless.
Almost, because he fired a very long double fault as he served for the match but, just as he had against Federer, that was the closest to a weakness he showed. He finished the match as he started it, 6-3, to score his 300th match-win. But his name will go in the record books for winning one of landmark titles in tennis.
It made Cilic the first Croatian to claim a Grand Slam title since coach Ivanisevic, who won Wimbledon in 2001—and also the first US Open champion ranked outside the top 10 since Pete Sampras in 2002. However, Cilic will no longer be outside the top 10: Victory takes him to No9, equalling his best-ever ranking, but more significantly, to No5 in the race to the ATP World Tour Finals in London.
It was to Ivanisevic that he paid so much credit for bringing all his ability together into world-beating form—and the solution was simple: “I think this is all the hard work in the last several years and especially the last year.
“My team has brought something special to me, especially Goran—and the most important thing he brought to me was joy in tennis and always having fun.”
Nishikori looked an exhausted runner-up, not surprisingly. But he too is in contention for London and promised that “next time” he would lift trophy. Until then, he remains the only Asian man to have reached a Grand Slam final—and his next step will surely come soon.