Few people would have predicted a final between No. 10 seed Kei Nishikori of Japan and No. 14 seed Marin Cilic of Croatia at the start of this tournament, but both men have pulled off impressive upsets to reach their first Grand Slam final and have a chance to do one better today. This marks the first Grand Slam final since the 2005 Australian Open that doesn’t feature Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal.
Nishikori leads the head-to-head over Cilic by 5-2 and has won their last three matches, but the pair have split their two matches at the US Open. Nishikori prevailed in a five-set thriller in the second round of the 2010 tournament, while Cilic prevailed in four sets in the third round in 2012.
Cilic’s serve will play a major role in this match. He put on a serving clinic in his semifinal against Federer, who only got 60 percent of the Croatian’s serve back into play. And in the moments where Nishikori does get the return back, Cilic will likely have opportunities to set up the point with his forehand.
Conversely, Nishikori’s return of serve will be the key shot for him. It’s safe to he’s not afraid of a big serve, as evidenced by how he handled the thunderbolts coming from Milos Raonic in the fourth round. He’ll need to keep his returns deep in order to keep Cilic off balance and take advantage of any looks at a second serve that he gets.
Fitness could also play a role in the final. Nishikori has taken part in the two of the three longest matches of the tournament on the men’s side and then prevailed in a grueling four-set victory over Djokovic in the semis. Meanwhile, Cilic has spent about two hours on court in each of his last two matches. Nishikori is undeniably fit, but the odds favor Cilic if the match goes to a fourth or fifth set.
It also remains to be seen how both players will handle nerves in their first Grand Slam final. This is uncharted territory for both of them and as well as they’ve been playing, not having one of the Top 3 on the other side of the net for the final is as golden of an opportunity as they could hope for. An early break of serve for either player could spell losing the opening set and playing catch-up for the rest of the match.