This U.S. Open was no exception to that rule. I spent 15 days and many nights closely monitoring the last major of 2014. By and large, it was a very good tennis tournament. I enjoyed it immensely, and it all concluded with two surprise finalists among the men, plus one formidable and enduring woman standing beneath the spotlight in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the end.
The way I look at it, ten players stand out this year for various reasons. Some of these individuals found success on the highest level. Others did exceedingly well and took away something substantial from the tournament. Meanwhile, there were competitors who did not meet their expectations, and for them it was an unfortunate way to finish up the season at the premier events.
Lets recollect the 2014 U.S. Open through the prism of ten players who met different fates.
THE ARRIVAL OF MARIN CILIC
In 27 previous appearances at the major championships, Cilics best showing was in 2010 at the Australian Open, when he got to the penultimate round before losing to Andy Murray. The 66, 25-year-old from Croatia had long been close to the forefront of the game, but had seldom done himself justice. To many of his most ardent admirers, that was puzzling. He always covered the court remarkably well for a man of his size. He never had anything but a big and imposing game. He seemed to have a good match playing temperament, although he could lose his nerve in the tight corners of a good many contests.
The match that springs to mind and illustrates that point powerfully is a fourth round meeting the big man had in a 2012 quarterfinal at the U.S. Open. Cilic overwhelmed Murray to win the first set, and moved briskly into a 5-1 second set lead. He had set points to establish a two sets to love lead. Victory seemed as if it might be just around the corner. But Cilic faltered at that critical stage of the match. He dropped the second set and bowed out tamely 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-0. Earlier this summer, he took on Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon and led two sets to one, but he faded down the stretch there as well.
But Cilic had clearly been benefitting from the new council he was receiving from his new coach Goran Ivanisevic. Ivanisevic made Cilic realize at last that he had to make the serve the cornerstone of his game. That was far from the only advice delivered by the beguiling Ivanisevic, who examined all aspects of Cilics game and observed astutely what needed to be done.
Even so, the serve had to be addressed. Cilic always had a very good serve, but it never seemed to be as imposing at it should have been. We did not think of him as a blockbuster server along the lines of a John Isner or a Milos Raonic. But clearly Cilic had one of the best serving tournaments of his career at the U.S. Open. Serving freely and explosively perhaps enabled Cilic to open up more expansively with the rest of his game. He did just that across the entire tournament, peaking propitiously at the end with a string of unbeatable performances.
The No. 14 seed was ahead of Marcos Baghdatis 6-4, 3-1 in the first round when the Cypriot had to retire. Cilic then accounted for Illya Marchenko in straight sets. The serious work commenced in the third round. Cilic removed No. 18 seed Kevin Anderson in a four set collision, and then came the pivotal match of the tournament for the Croatian.
He faced No. 26 seed Gilles Simon, a pest for all of the top players if ever there was one. Simon absorbs pace with astonishing skill, chases down every ball uncompromisingly, passes superbly off both sides, and is a brick wall from the back of the court. He had taken down No. 4 seed David Ferrer in four sets, forcing the Spaniard to attack more than he would have liked. Simon was plainly in form, and Cilic had to dig and claw his way through a difficult five set showdown with the agile Frenchman. Ultimately, Cilic prevailed 5-7, 7-6 (3), 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, raising his intensity and elevating his firepower in the fifth set to gain the victory.
That was a tremendous clutch effort from Cilic, who had to play one exhausting rally after another against an obstinate adversary. But a pattern was emerging. Cilic had a first serve percentage of 53%, but he won 81% of his first serve points and 57% on his second delivery. Therefore, he was broken only three times across the five sets. Moreover, he won 28 of 38 points approaching the net, a success rate of 74% against an unassailable counter-attacker. Despite 76 unforced errors compared to 31 for his rock solid opponent, Cilic manufactured a victory.
With that tough business behind him Cilic took his game to another level in many ways. He halted No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (4) in the quarterfinals, setting up a semifinal appointment with five time U.S. Open champion and No 2 seed Roger Federer. Cilic had lost all five of his previous career meetings with Federer, including a recent defeat at the hands of the Swiss in Toronto. Federer had just survived a harrowing five set collision with Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals, saving two match points at 4-5 in the fourth set. The prevailing view was that Federers vast big match experience would carry him through, even if Cilic was better prepared to test the Swiss than he ever had been before.
But Cilic played arguably the best tennis match of his career to rout Federer 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. This was devastatingly potent stuff from start to finish. Federer served at 1-2, 40-0 and missed with a forehand inside-in, pulling it wide. Cilic pounced, aggressively taking the next four points to get the break. He was absolutely unstoppable from that juncture on. He put only 56% of his first serves in but won 87% of those points. Meanwhile, he took 56% of his second serve points. Cilic was broken only once, and that was not until he was ahead two sets to love. His returns were magnificent off both sides, and he took utter control of the baseline rallies.
Federer had been attacking with growing success and regularity throughout the tournament, but Cilic largely took that option away from his adversary with the brute force of his baseline game and his excellent passing shots. Federer played only 12 serve-and-volley points, and won only half of those. The Swiss approached the net 23 times, taking just 11 of those points. Cilic was masterful. Most impressively, he closed out each set unhesitatingly. Serving for the first set at 5-3, he held at love, opening and closing that game with aces. At 5-4 in the second, he held at 15, starting and ending that game with aces again. And serving for the match at 5-4 in the third set, Cilic raced to 40-0 with three aces in a row, followed by a backhand winner down the line. In those three crucial, set-ending games, Cilic lost one point. He hit 43 winners in that impeccable match.
When he confronted Kei Nishikori in the final, critics wondered whether or not Cilic could play with the same sustained, unbridled aggression. To his everlasting credit, Cilic did almost replicate his performance against Federer. Nishikori had been the tournaments standout performer, knocking out the No. 1, No. 3 and No. 5 seeds, creating a tremendous stir back in his native Japan, winning a vast new legion of fans in New York.
Cilic knew full well that there would not be much crowd sentiment on his side in the final. But he is such a consummate professional that he essentially tuned out the audience and simply kept playing his own simple music. Cilic faced a break point in the very first game of his confrontation with Nishikori, but wiped it away forcefully. Nishikori drove a two-handed backhand return firmly down the line, but Cilic fended off that shot beautifully and eventually won the point with an outright winner off the forehand.
Cilic held on for 1-0, and then settled into a glorious rhythm on serve. After that scare in the opening game, he won 16 of 17 points on his delivery for the rest of the set. He broke Nishikori for 4-2 and made it count. Cilic surged to 3-1 in the second set, and broke Nishikori again in the seventh game. Although he lost his own serve at 5-2, it hardly mattered. Cilic broke Nishikori again in the ninth game, and rolled to a two set lead. The composed Croatian was unstoppable now. He recorded a 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 triumph in one hours and 54 minutes, serving 17 aces, losing his serve only once. Remarkably, he made only 52% of his first serves but won 80% of those points, and took 61% of his second serve points.
Cilic displayed a versatility in that final that was inescapable. He took the initiative away from Nishikori time and again by using the sliced backhand so judiciously, working his way back into rallies before shifting to offense. His serve was impossible to read. His movement was at times astounding. He only came to the net 13 times, but was successful on eleven of those journeys. Cilic was every inch a champion.
The hope here is that he will not rest on his laurels. Cilic has the capacity to win a couple more majors if he applies himself diligently over the next few years. It will be up to him.
THE REVIVAL OF SERENA WILLIAMS
After capturing the championships of her country for the third year in a row, Serena Williams conceded that she had been thinking for quite some time about what her historical quest would mean. She was the first player since Chrissie Evert (1975-78) to win at least three womens singles titles in a row, and that was a considerable achievement. She tied Evert for the most singles titles in the Open Era for a man or a woman with six, and that, too, was no mean feat. But the target that mattered more than any other for Serena was securing her 18th Grand Slam singles championship. By realizing that lofty goal, Williams is now tied with Evert and Martina Navratilova on the all-time list of female singles title holders at the majors. The only females who have won more Grand Slam singles events are Margaret Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), and Helen Wills Moody. Williams is very likely to move past Williams, perhaps even next year. She could well catch Graf by securing four more titles over the next two to three years. I see that as entirely possible.
Can she surpass Graf? That may well be a tall task, although I would not put it past her. Will she catch Court? I doubt it, but then again Williams is one astounding athlete and her drive to succeed is now probably greater than ever.
What amazed me about this tournament was her all-out commitment and consistency in all seven matches that she played. She dropped only 32 games in 14 sets. She won a major for the fifth time without losing a set, but this was the first time she had ever realized that feat without ever being extended beyond 6-3 in any set. To be sure, her draw opened up. She was expected to meet Sam Stosur (who crushed Serena in the 2011 Open final) in the round of 16, and the determined Ana Ivanovic in the quarterfinals, but neither of those players made it that far.
Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova was seeded third and a potential semifinal opponent, but she did not make it there. In the final, Williams could well have collided with No. 2 seed Simona Halep, No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska or No. 5 Maria Sharapova, but instead she faced Caroline Wozniacki. That was good fortune, but the way Williams was playing it probably would not have mattered; she was consumed by taking this title, and no one was going to stop Williams. She was absolutely unwavering.
In the final, she was first rate against No. 10 seed and good friend Caroline Wozniacki, who had twice taken Williams to three sets over the summer. But Williams was primed for this appointment in every way. She saved a break point in the opening game of the match with an ace and held on for 1-0. Williams moved ahead 2-0, lost her serve from 30-0, then broke again. Both players had difficulty serving into the wind. Williams broke again for 3-1, lost her serve in the fifth game, but got the pivotal break to move ahead 4-2 when an uneasy Wozniacki missed flagrantly off the forehand.
Williams won her last two service games of the set at 15, and took it 6-3. In the second set, Williams had much better rhythm on serve, winning 16 of 20 points on her delivery, never allowing Wozniacki to breathe. After making only 41% of her first serves during the first set, Williams took that number up to 70% in the second set, and that made all the difference. She unleashed 29 winners while Wozniacki had only four.
And so Williams was victorious for the 18th time in 22 major finals. She has long been the games greatest woman player on big occasions. The transformation in Williams from late spring and early summer into late summer was immense. She had not been past the round of 16 at the first three majors of 2014 but that clearly did not sit well with her. Capturing the titles in Stanford, California and Cincinnati set the stage for Williams to win the U.S. Open. The view here is that she will head into 2015 fully prepared to win at least two more majors.
NISHIKORI MAKES HIS MOVE
We should have seen this coming. Nishikori had performed with increasing assurance and verve during the spring, toppling Federer from a set and a break down in Miami, nearly upending Nadal in the final of Madrid on clay (Nishikori led 6-2, 4-2 before retiring at 0-3 in the third set), and winning the tournament in Barcelona. He had been out over the summer and missed both Masters 1000 events in Canada and Cincinnati. His ailing toe nearly kept him out of the U.S. Open.
But the mans talent and court presence are undeniable. His footwork is often astounding, his two-handed backhand is now among the three best in the game, his return of serve is among the finest in tennis, and he is a quietly ferocious competitor. No player in the mens field was more captivating at the 2014 U.S. Open than Kei Nishikori.
His first big win was over Milos Raonic. The No. 5 seed won the first set, but it was uncomfortable for the Canadian after Nishikori rallied from 1-4, 0-30 to reach 4-4. Nishikori took the second before Raonic narrowly captured the third in a tie-break. At 5-5 in the fourth set, Raonic seemed almost certain to succeed in this round of 16 skirmish. But Nishikori broke him right then and there, and was much better off physically in the fifth set.
Nishikori had lost to Raonic at Wimbledon, but he could not maintain the upper hand in this match. Raonic served 35 aces and won 82% of his first serve points, but he only took 46% of his second serve points, while Nishikori was 20% better in that category. That may have been the crucial factor in the end. Nishikori bested Raonic 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-7 (6), 7-5, 6-4.
In the quarterfinals, Nishikori won the match of the tournament over Australian Open victor and No. 3 U.S. Open seed Stan Wawrinka. Wawrinka won the first set with relative ease, but then served a double fault to lose his serve at 5-6 in the second set. The third set was fascinating. Nishikori was up 5-2 with a set point on Wawrinkas serve, but missed off the forehand. They went to a tie-break, and Wawrinka had a set point at 6-5 but Wawrinka produced a dazzling backhand down the line passing shot. Wawrinka moved to 7-6 and held a set point of his own, but Nishikori answered boldly with a sweetly timed backhand winner down the line. Nishikori secured the set, 9-7 in the tie-break.
The fourth set went to another tie-break, with Nishikori rallying from 0-4 back to 5-5, but he faltered from there and dropped the set. At 1-1 in the fifth set, Nishikori saved two break points and he fended off another at 2-2. With Wawrinka serving at 4-5, the Swiss totally cracked, double faulting, caving in off the forehand, and surrendering surprisingly tamely. But that could not diminish an outstanding tennis match, and the best one played at the 2014 Open.
The rallies in this one were sparkling, with Wawrinka exploiting his terrific one-handed backhand and Nishikori displaying his stellar two-hander. Both men were probing. It was a wonderfully played strategic battle by both men. There was no more enjoyable tennis played in the entire tournament, either before or after. Nishikori won 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7), 6-7 (5), 6-4.
After that pair of bruising five set contests, Nishikori had two days off before taking on top seeded Novak Djokovic. I was convinced that Djokovic would get to Nishikoris legs and wear him down physically. The Serbian had lost only one set in the tournament and was eager to reach his fifth U.S. Open final in a row and remain in contention for a second title in New York. But Djokovic was a shell of his normal self. He had no zest. His movement was not up to normal standards. He wilted badly on a day when the temperature on court soared to about 100 degrees. He looked eerily like the young Djokovic who was so vulnerable whenever he competed on the hottest days.
Nishikori took the first set before Djokovic swept through the second. Nishikori seemed to be trying to convince himself that he could win this tennis match. He served for the third set at 5-3 but double faulted that game away. That set was settled in a tie-break. Nishikori led 4-0 but inner doubts seeped in once more. Djokovic reached 4-5 and was serving, but he made two timid mistakes off the forehand. The set was gone. Early in the fourth, a debilitated Djokovic surrendered his serve, and he never broke back.
Nishikori paced himself admirably, winning 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3. He was the better player in the backhand to backhand exchanges as Djokovic could not make his usual penetrating shots off that side. Nishikori returned with more authority than the best returner in tennis. He even out-served Djokovic in the end.
Thus Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a final at a Grand Slam event. He had nothing left. But I have no doubt he will be back in more major finals. He will make his presence felt all through 2015. He may suffer more injuries and be out for stretches, but when he is around Kei Nishikori will worry everyone in the upper levels of the game. Everyone.
WOZNIACKI BACK WHERE SHE BELONGS
It had been five long years since Caroline Wozniacki had been in a major final. She lost that year to Kim Clijsters in the title round at the U.S. Open. In the years since, she had been scrutinized almost ceaselessly by all kinds of tennis authorities. Despite finishing 2010 and 2011 as the No. 1 ranked woman in the world, in the eyes of most observers she had not fully validated that status because she has not won a major. In 2012 and 2013, Wozniacki finished at No. 10 in the world, and she was seeded tenth at the 2014 U.S. Open.
But the popular Danish competitor celebrated an outstanding U.S. Open. She defeated the No. 18 seed Andrea Petkovic in straight sets, and then won the most compelling match of the womens tournament over 2006 champion Maria Sharapova 6-4, 2-6, 6-2. Wozniacki started auspiciously, building a 3-0 first set lead before Sharapova made it back to 4-4. Wozniacki took eight of the next ten points to seal the set. Sharapova was overpowering in the second set, returning with vigor, blasting Wozniacki off the court.
But Wozniacki played the third set with a telling blend of offense and defense. She drove through her forehand beautifully, especially down the line. With Sharapova serving at 1-2, 0-40 in the third set, Wozniacki ran down one ball after another with deep resolve, until Sharapova missed a backhand volley. She raised her fist and the crowd rose to applaud her unabashedly. From that moment on, Wozniacki was unswerving. She surged to 4-1 before Sharapova took the next game with a couple of aces. Wozniacki buckled down commendably and took two games in a row to complete a virtuous 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 victory over Sharapova.
Next up for Wozniacki was the tenacious Sara Errani, who could garner only one game as the Dane picked her apart meticulously. In the semifinals, Sharapova was hard pressed to overcome Peng Shuai and was leading 7-6 (1), 4-3 when Peng had to retire with heat exhaustion and cramps. That win sent Wozniacki into her second major final. Losing to Williams was no disgrace. Wozniacki can take considerable pride in winning six matches and earning the right to appear in the last major final of 2014.
ISNER FALLS SHORT AGAIN
For the third year in a row in the third round of the U.S. Open, the towering John Isner found himself facing the gifted German Philipp Kohlschreiber. In 2012, Isner bowed out in five hard sets. A year ago, he lost a close four set skirmish. He surely believed that this year he would make amends and defeat Kohlschreiber, but that was not the case.
Isner was beaten again, but this defeat may have stung even more than the others. He did not lose his serve in four sets. He released no fewer than 42 aces. He competed well, tried his best, and seemed to have his heart set on victory. But the most distressing part of this defeat for Isner was his sub-par play in tie-breaks. Isner lost 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4). Every set he lost was a tie-break, and no one thrives more in those sequences normally than the 610 American.
Isner had a 37-17 tie-break record heading into this contest. And yet, he faltered badly, most notably in the third set tie-break. In that sequence, he served two double faults. In the match overall, Isner won 81% of his first serve points and 65% on his second serve. But that was not enough to get him across the finish line. He reached the quarterfinals at Flushing Meadows in 2011, losing to Andy Murray. That is the only time in his career that he has been in the last eight at a major.
That is not the way it should be for John Isner. He is better than that.
EUGENIE BOUCHARD HUMBLED
Probably no woman player has stirred up more interest in the game this year than the Canadian Eugenie Bouchard. Her run through the previous three major events was very impressive. She made it to the semifinals of the Australian Open. She was in the penultimate round at the French Open, and lost a hard fought and awfully well played skirmish to Sharapova. At Wimbledon, she went one better, surging into the final.
Bouchard had a disappointing summer, but her large sense of self and her unmistakable drive were the twin reasons why so many expected that she would make another big showing at the U.S. Open.
By no means did she do badly. Bouchard was gutsy and highly charged in advancing to the round of 16. She took her first round match easily and then survived a pair of strenuous three set battles. On she went to the round of 16 to meet Ekaterina Makarova. Bouchard seemed to be finding her confidence and setting the stage for something substantial, but she could not handle the intense heat against the left-hander Makarova. Bouchard was given ice for her shoulders and she was able to complete the match, but to no avail. Makarova triumphed 7-6 (2), 6-4.
Bouchard was not the same immensely confident player we had seen all year long at the other Grand Slam championships. It was no shame for her to lose in the fourth round at the Open, but the hope here is that she will recover her swagger soon and resume her winning ways.
DJOKOVIC BOWS OUT WITH CLASS
I have already noted how Novak Djokovic bowed out rather tamely against Kei Nishikori. He did not lose that match mentally; he was beaten physically, unable to summon the strength he needed to succeed, and a thoroughly depleted figure in the heat. It was a sad sight to witness Djokovic struggling so much to find his customary power off the ground.
Having said that, I must add that Djokovic was exemplary in his press conference. He refused to offer any excuses. He kept stressing that the heat was the same for both players. He was not going to take anything away from Nishikori. Djokovic was honest about his disappointment in his own play but he had no alibis or explanations for his performance.
That is the way it should be. Djokovic performed like a much lesser player, but he behaved like a champion in defeat, and I liked that.
KVITOVA ENIGMATIC ONCE MORE
When we last watched Petra Kvitova at a major, she gave one of the great performances of her career to dissect Bouchard in the final. That performance was breathtaking. It was the second time she had won the worlds most prestigious tournament. She was first rate in every way. Kvitova put on a shotmaking clinic, rifling winners off both sides, serving tremendously, returning with power, precision and consistency.
She was seeded third at the U.S. Open, and the hope here was that Kvitova would at least reach the quarterfinals at the Open for the first time in her career. But it was not to be. The brilliant left-hander swept through her first couple of matches at the cost of only seven games in four sets. In the third round, she played against the qualifier Aleksandra Krunic. Krunic soft-balled Kvitova from beginning to end, pushing one ball back after another, allowing Kvitova to self-destruct. Kvitova would open up the court for winning shots, only to miss in the end. Krunic is an exceedingly quick player who can run down balls magnificently.
But Kvitova beat herself. She had openings and missed them repeatedly. It was her match to win, but she lost to an inferior player. It would have been a good thing for the tournament to have Kvitova around to play Serena Williams in the semifinals, but the Wimbledon champion bowed out in the third round.
In my view, that was much too early.
ANDY MURRAY BREAKS DOWN PHYSICALLY
Having lost in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, the semifinals at Roland Garros and the quarters at Wimbledon, Andy Murray seemed determined to make amends at the U.S. Open. The 2012 champion spoke frequently over the summer and during the Open about how he believed he was not that far away from moving back to the top of his game. I believed him. Murray has indeed shown many flashes of his former greatness. He did not win the 2012 Olympic gold medal, the 2012 U.S. Open and the 2013 Wimbledon by accident. He is a great player.
And yet, since having back surgery last fall, Murray has not been able to consistently reach the level he needs to play his finest tennis. In Cincinnati, for instance, he lost the first set to Federer and was ahead 4-1 and two service breaks in the second set, but inexplicably lost that set. At the U.S. Open, Murray was playing Robin Haase in the first round. He won the first two sets, lost the third, and trailed 3-5 in the fourth before rallying for a four set victory.
But the bad news for the British player was that he was cramping in that match. He had trained very hard all summer so he did not expect to have such a problem. In any case, he carved out some victories to reach the round of 16, and played probably his best match of the year to oust an in form Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-5, 7-5, 6-4. For the first set-and-a-half against Djokovic in the quarters, Murray was often dazzling, particularly with his flat running forehand crosscourt, but also on the return of serve. He lost the first set in a tie-break, took the second in another tie-break, but then his energy level dropped precipitously in the third set.
Djokovic moved on to win 7-6 (1), 6-7 (1), 6-2, 6-4 victory. Murray looked as if he his back was bothering him and he walked like a wounded man between points. Afterwards he seemed baffled by what happened in his match with Haase and perplexed by his breakdown physically against Djokovic. He needs to figure all of that out in a hurry because the year ahead is crucial for Murray.
PENG SHUAI HAS BEST MAJOR YET
She has been ranked among the top four in the world in doubles. She has enjoyed a distinguished career in singles as well. Since 2004, she has always been among the top 75 at the end of the year. In 2011, she finished the season stationed at No. 17.
But never before had she been to the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament. And yet, Pengs ball striking in this event was seldom short of first rate. She upset No. 28 seed Roberta Vinci in the third round, toppled No. 14 Lucie Safarova in the fourth round, and moved on to the penultimate round without losing a set.
Peng played some scintillating tennis against Wozniacki in that round. She acquitted herself exceedingly well. But she had to retire in the heat after cramping badly. The heat defeated her as much as Wozniacki. A happy tournament for the 28-year-old concluded on the saddest possible note. But the bottom line is that Peng will recollect this U.S. Open in positive ways for the rest of her life, and that is just the way it ought to be.
<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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