To be sure, Cilic is an imperfect human being who has made his share of mistakes. A year ago, he was suspended for four months for an anti-doping violation that he claimed was totally unintentional and misconstrued. He took his punishment with dignity. But now those hard times are well behind him. Cilic is on top of the world. He is the United States Open Tennis champion, and the way he performed down the stretch of this tournament was astounding. Cilic becomes the first man from Croatia since Goran Ivanisevic (now his coach) won Wimbledon in 2001 to claim a Grand Slam championship. He stepped out onto Arthur Ashe Stadium tonight and performed majestically in his first ever final round appearance at a major. Cilic took on another man who had never been that far before at a Big Four event, and the 25-year-old struck down the immensely appealing Kei Nishikori symmetrically, securing the crown by scores of 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.
Many among the players and press felt this would be an awfully close contest between the fleet-footed Japanese competitor and the 66 Cilic, an overpowering physical force who can blow adversaries off the court with his potent and purposeful serving and his explosive ground game. But two things happened simultaneously that made a tight battle impossible: Cilic rose magnificently to the occasion and gave one of the sprightliest performances of his career, swinging freely, serving stupendously and mixing up his game adroitly. He was masterful in every way, driving the ball with daunting power off both sides but also defending capably and mixing in the slice backhand more persuasively than perhaps he ever has before. Moreover, he seldom missed when it mattered, and he controlled the tempo of the contest from the very beginning to the inevitable end. In plain and simple terms, Marin Cilic was just too good.
Now for the second reason that the match was so lopsided: Nishikori was clearly spent. He had overcome No. 5 seed Milos Raonic in five exhausting sets to reach the quarterfinals, and then ousted Australian Open victor and No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka in an enthralling five set showdown that took him into the quarterfinals. Nishikori then produced his third significant upset, toppling world No. 1 and 2011 U.S. Open champion Novak Djokovic in four sets. Nishikori ignited his nation by reaching the final; no Asian man had ever made it to a major final. His growing legion of boosters hoped he would have just enough emotional energy left after his series of hard fought skirmishes on his way to the title round contest, but that was not the case. One of Nishikoris primary strengthsalong with his superb two-handed backhand and a terrific return of serveis his alacrity around the court, but his foot-speed against Cilic was sorely lacking for most of the match. Without his customary quickness, Nishikori was at a distinct disadvantage against an opponent who was playing the best tennis of his entire career; it was just about as simple as that.
And yet, Nishikori knew he had beaten Cilic in five of their previous seven career head to head appointments, so he must have approached this encounter at least mildly optimistic, despite his fatigue. In fact, Nishikori did have the first opportunity to make an impression. Both players were unmistakably tense during the early stages, and an early break would have done Nishikori a world of good. But he was unable to gain that advantage. The 24-year-old Japanese player had a break point in the opening game after Cilic made an unprovoked mistake, pulling a forehand crosscourt wide. Nishikori laced a backhand return down the line with interest, but Cilic fended off that shot beautifully and eventually won the point with a clean winner, going crosscourt off the forehand. Despite missing five of eight first serves, Cilic held on for 1-0.
For the rest of the set, Cilic was thoroughly unstoppable on his delivery. In his next four service games, he swept 16 of 17 points, demoralizing Nishikori in the process. Although Nishikori held from 0-30 to reach 1-1, it seemed only a matter of time before he would get broken. Serving at 2-3, Nishikori drifted to 0-40, took the next two points, but then was coaxed into an error at 30-40. Cilic sliced a backhand cagily down the line, and the weary Nishikori was having inordinate problems dealing with low balls. He drove a forehand wide down the line. A highly charged yet utterly composed Cilic had a 4-2 lead. He made it 5-2 by holding at 15despite missing four out of five first serves. The heavy kick on Cilics second serve was bothering Nishikori deeply. He could not control his returns off those high bounding deliveries.
After Nishikori held for 3-5, Cilic served for the opening set at 5-3. He handled that challenge superbly, holding at love, connecting with three out of four first serves. In that particular game, Cilic did it all: walloping a crosscourt backhand that was unanswerable; angling a forehand drop volley out of Nishikoris reach, drawing an error from Nishikori, and then approaching handsomely down the line off the forehand to elicit a mistake from Nishikori. The set had gone to Cilic, 6-3, and he had played with increasing confidence as it progressed.
At 1-1 in the second set, Cilic made his move once more. Nishikori rallied from 0-40 to deuce, making an audacious forehand drop shot winner that earned him a thundering round of applause from the audience in Ashe Stadium. That point lasted 19 strokes. But Cilic did not despair. He took a looping forehand from Nishikori and cracked a flat forehand winner crosscourt regally, garnering a fourth break point. Nishikori was shaken, missing a routine two-handed off an unthreatening return. Cilic had the break for 2-1, but trailed 15-40 in the fourth game. He surged back to 30-40, and then aced Nishikori at 129 MPH for deuce. He followed with a 134 MPH first serve that set up an assertive forehand approach, leading to a forehand volley winner into the open court. Cilic held for 3-1 with a stinging forehand down the line, forcing Nishikori to hit a slice backhand into the net.
After Nishikori held at love for 2-3, Cilic put on a phenomenal serving clinic. He released four consecutive aces to hold at love for 4-2, starting with a 129 MPH thunderbolt down the T, following with another at 121 MPH down the T. Then he aced Nishikori down the T at 122 MPH and he closed out that immaculate game with an ace out wide at 129 MPH. This was a gem of a service game, and Cilic found every line he could with those splendid serves. In the seventh game, he added an insurance break for 5-2, opening up commandingly off the forehand to produce a pair of winners. Serving for the set in the eighth game, Cilic double faulted for 15-30, and netted a backhand off a deep ball for 15-40. Yet he unleashed two service winners for deuce. Nishikori, however, was zeroed in on his target. He made it back to 3-5, and that would be the only time in the match that he would break serve.
It hardly mattered. Cilic was returning so well and bearing down so sedulously that Nishikori could gain no momentum. Serving at 3-5, 30-30, Nishikori almost advertised his weariness. Cilic tossed up a reasonably good defensive lob off the backhand, and Nishikori retreatedonly to send his overhead sadly into the net. Now at 30-40, Nishikori could not escape. Cilic thumped a forehand down the line for a winner, clipping the line, sealing the second set with that shot. Cilic was ahead two sets to love, and unwilling to look back. He commenced the third set with three consecutive aces for 40-0 in the opening game, although Nishikori took three points in a row to make it deuce. After another deuce, however, Cilic held on for 1-0.
After both players held, Cilic went for the jugular again. With Nishikori serving at 1-2, Cilic fully displayed his backcourt mastery and kept extracting errors. He got the break for 3-1 with variety and extraordinary ball control, offense and defense, touch and power. Serving in the fifth game, Cilic served two more aces and held at 30 with supreme aggression. It was 4-1 for the front runner, and Nishikori realized his back was to the wall. Nishikori held on for 2-4 with a flurry of crackling forehands, and then had his last chance. With Cilic serving in the seventh game, Nishikori went to 15-40, but a first rate second serve from Cilic saved the initial break point and an ace from Cilic took him to deuce. Nishikori advanced to break point for the third time, but overanxiously netted a forehand return off a second serve.
Cilic was soon out of danger. His forehand drop shot clipped the net cord but Nishikori missed a difficult forehand passing shot wide, and then Cilic took matters into his own hands, sending a scorching backhand down the line for a winner. It was 5-2 for the Croat. After Nishikori held for 3-5, Cilic served for the match. He started with a 130 MPH service winner down the T, and then released another service winner at 128 MPH to the backhand for 30-0. He moved to 40-0 on an error from Nishikori. At triple match point, Cilic at last revealed his human side. His double fault on that point seemed as if it landed seven miles long, somewhere out in a distant corner of Long Island.
That was not a problem. At 40-15, Cilic opened up the court with a crosscourt forehand and then cemented his victory with a clean winner off the backhand, going crosscourt into a wide open space. Cilic completed his mission in one hour and 54 minutes, demolishing a distinguished opponent, giving a performance of the highest order in the biggest match he has ever played. Cilic had closed the tournament with a grand flourish, toppling No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych, five-time champion Roger Federer and the soaring Nishikori without losing a set. A run of that magnitude does not happen by accident. In his win over Nishikori, Cilic served 17 aces, won 80% of his first serve points, and took 61% on his second delivery. He made twice as many winners as Nishikori38 to 19and three fewer unforced errors. Approaching the net, the strategically sound Cilic won 11 of 13 points.
In his 28th appearance at a Grand Slam championship, Marin Cilic captured his first major. He now moves up to No. 9 in the world following his great victory. The Grand Slam season opened with Wawrinka securing his first career title at a major, and then Rafael Nadal stopped Novak Djokovic for the French Open title before Djokovic overcame Federer in the Wimbledon title round match. Now Cilic is the second man this year to break through on one of the biggest stages. The Big Four of Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray had won 36 of the previous 38 majors, but the tide may be turning to a degree as we head into 2015. In the meantime, Cilic should be proud that he made the most of a significant opportunity. Whether or not he ever wins another major is open to question, but this much is certain: he is a very worthy 2014 U.S. Open champion..
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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