WHAT HAPPENED: Not since the 2005 Australian Open had there been a major final contested without one of the ATP’s Big Four. But the 2014 US Open final broke that trend, as giant-slayers Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic blitzed their way past top seeds and fan favorites to set up an unlikely final that not many could have predicted.
But when the smoke had cleared and the greats had long been gone, it was No. 14 seed Cilic who proved he was the best player at this event, cruising through a 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 win in just under two hours to capture his first Grand Slam title. Cilic is now the first Croat to win a major title since compatriot and coach Goran Ivanisevic won Wimbledon in 2001.
Cilic had earned his spot in the US Open final in convincing form, dismissing both No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych and No. 2 Roger Federer in straight sets prior to the final. He continued his dominance against 10th-seeded Nishikori, playing in the zone with a relaxed, loose and consistent game that Nishikori struggled to keep up with.
Cilic opened the match serving well, using his serve as a weapon to put the pressure on Nishikori and set the tone early. Unfortunately for Nishikori, the fearless play he employed in taking down No. 5 Milos Raonic, No. 3 Stan Wawrinka and No. 1 Novak Djokovic to reach the championship stage simply was not present against Cilic.
Though the Japanese star pushed Cilic in long baseline rallies, he was not as consistent with his shots, which allowed the Croat to take the first break of the match for a 4-2 lead. A strong hold at love three games later gave him the set.
As the match wore on, Cilic had the better movement and more aggressive play, covering the court with ease, while Nishikori was left scrambling, his unforced errors piling up. After four breaks of serve in the second set, three of which came on Nishikori’s serve, Cilic secured a solid grip on the match with a two-set lead just an hour and 10 minutes in.
Down a break midway through the third set, Nishikori nearly had a chance to get back in the match when he held two break points in the 4-2 game. But after Cilic erased both chances with two solid serves, he was able to hold on and come within one game of the championship.
In his final service game, Cilic fired two unreturnable serves and a backhand cross-court winner to claim the trophy.
WHAT IT MEANS: Cilic is the first No. 14 seed to win a major title in the Open era, and the first US Open champion outside the Top 10 since No. 17 Pete Sampras won in 2002. His previous best Grand Slam finish came at the semifinals of the 2010 Australian Open, as well as the quarterfinals of this year’s Wimbledon Championships.
One year ago, he was forced to sit out for the year-end Grand Slam while serving a four-month doping ban from the ITF after mistakenly taking a prohibited supplement. But during that time off, he focused his efforts on improving his game so that he could return to the tour a stronger player.
“It was a difficult period,” Cilic said, “but was also good period for me. I matured a bit more, and I was working day after day. I wasn't, you know, relaxing and doing nothing. So I think that helped me to improve physically. Also, it helped me to have, you know, enough time to put some new parts in my game, which are helping me to play this well now.”
His hard work certainly paid off, as Cilic holds the second best record in match wins this season at 47-16.
THE QUESTION: Could Cilic’s first Grand Slam breakthrough be a springboard for more major titles in his career?