It was the men’s final matchup no expert could or would have predicted, and from it emerged a champion who’s dismantling of three Top 10 players this past week – Tomas Berdych, Roger Federer and now Kei Nishikori – will be remembered as part of one of the more unexpected runs in US Open lore.
Standing 6-foot-6 and slamming 98 aces over the course of this tournament, meet 2014 US Open champ Marin Cilic. On Monday, he notched the key seventh win of his time in New York, beating Nishikori, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 in a decidedly one-sided final.
“This is all hard work,” said the No. 14 seed Cilic, celebrating his first major win. “For all the other players out there working hard, this is a sign that it works.”
The 25-year-old Croat did not play in the 2013 US Open. While No. 1 Novak Djokovic met No. 2 Rafael Nadal last year in New York, Cilic was suspended for ingesting a banned stimulant. During his time away from the ATP World Tour – his ban was reduced from nine months to four upon appeal – Cilic asked countryman and 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic to help him reach his potential and hone his game. He had been in the Top 10 briefly in 2010 and, with his Ivanisevic's help, wanted to be sure that the next time he entered those ranks that he would remain there for a long time.
Winning a major nine months after returning to action could make that ambitious goal a reality.
“I felt the first part that helped me was the mental toughness, being much stronger and I was much tougher with myself on the tennis court when I was practicing and also when I was playing matches,” said Cilic of his time with Ivanisevic. "The other part was enjoying much more on the court before in these last several years since I had really good success in 2010. Then I started to slip a little bit and I was not enjoying so much on the court. I was always looking for the result, hoping it's gonna come back. It was not working. So things changed around and flipped it over with trying to enjoy on the court and enjoy every moment, which helped me to be much more relaxed. I feel that was the most important part for my game."
Much like his victory over 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer on Saturday afternoon, Cilic proved lethal on serve. He won 10 of 11 points on first serve and 11 of 14 points on his second offerings in the first set, persistently pushing the smaller No. 10 seed off-balance. He hit 11 winners in the 33 minute first set, taking a 6-3 lead. It was a familiar formula for the Croat, who dominated play; returns falling softly in front of a pouncing Cilic, a thunderous forehand, 15-love. 30-love. 40-love.
And eventually, game, set, match.
Nishikori, who had proven so resilient in five-set triumphs over No. 5 Milos Raonic and No. 3 Stanislas Wawrinka – and so confident in denying No. 1 Novak Djokovic passage into a fifth consecutive US Open final – couldn’t find the added strength to overcome what Cilic's excellence in execution. Looking to become the first Asian Grand Slam champion, Nishikori would try to come to the net more in the second set, winning a few nifty standoffs on longer points. Yet the 24-year-old continued to have trouble hurting Cilic when he had the serve, winning just 43 percent of his first-serve points.
“You know, I was, I have to say, a little bit nervous,” said Nishikori. “A little bit, you know. First final. But this experience [is going to] help for this season and next season, too."
With just over an hour elapsed, the two-set advantage seemed insurmountable. Cilic, now more demonstrative in cheering himself onward, counting down the points needed for the win, turned up the aggression and rocketed even his second serve offerings. He’d hit seven of his 17 aces for the match on second serves. Nishikori had nine break points inthe match; he converted only one. On his second championship point, Cilic forced Nishikori far to his right and well behind the baseline, leaving the opposite side of the court wide open for a 38th and final winner.
Cilic is the first No. 14 seed to win a major title in the Open era, and only the fifth to reach a final.
“And what it means to me, it means everything," said Cilic. "It's just a huge accomplishment and huge moment for myself and for my team and for everybody around me who was with me all these years supporting me, believing in me and never giving up. So this is just the peak of the world."