After the worry and the wait; after other years’ nerves and last year’s bitterness, it suddenly looked easy for Marin Cilic.
Tomas Berdych in the United States Open quarterfinals? Straight sets.
Roger Federer in the semifinals? Straight sets.
Kei Nishikori in the final with the wind and the pressure swirling? Same surprising, emphatic answer.
“Seems completely unreal to be called Grand Slam champion,” Cilic said.
So it might seem to a man who had never played in a Grand Slam final before, but the 6-foot-6 Cilic truly did not flinch: walking tall into Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday and playing taller as he swept to the title with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 rout of Nishikori.
“Everything I was working for and dreaming came today,” said Cilic, a 25-year-old Croat who can now shave his lucky beard if he chooses. “And I feel for all those other players who are working hard this is a big sign and big hope that if you are working hard things are going to pay off.”
Such signs have been scarce in this tennis era dominated by so few men. A year ago, Cilic, a semifinalist at the 2010 Australian Open, was unable to play here at all. He missed the tournament because he was serving a suspension after testing positive for a banned stimulant. Though he faced a possible two-year ban, he appealed, arguing that he had unintentionally ingested the substance in a glucose tablet, and succeeded in having the suspension reduced to four months.
“It angered me how all the process went, because it was not fair to me,” Cilic said last week. “It wouldn’t be fair to any tennis player. So that was just very bad memories.”
But against a big organization, he said, “you can’t do much. So I just accepted it. When I came back to tennis court, I erased it from my memory. I just used the positive parts, which, you know, made me tougher.”
He returned to the tour in October and rose in the rankings. He arrived in New York seeded 14th and with two titles already to his credit in 2014. But it would have taken quite a soothsayer to predict that from that platform, he would claim the Open trophy at a time when outsiders have so rarely managed to reach the finish line at major tournaments.
“I think the stars crossed,” Cilic said in a postmatch interview on CBS, mixing the metaphor but still making an essential point, because a star has certainly made a big difference for Cilic.
Goran Ivanisevic, the once-big-serving and still charismatic Croat, was the player who offered Cilic early encouragement in his teens and put him in touch with his former coach Bob Brett, the clever, deeply experienced Australian who then helped mold Cilic into a top 10 player.
Late last year, Ivanisevic, now retired as a player, took over as Cilic’s coach and has brought a sharp wit and positive energy to the task, refining his countryman’s serve and tactics.
“We are working really hard, but the most important thing he brought to me was joy in tennis and always having fun,” Cilic said.
Now, both the coach and the pupil have one Grand Slam singles title. Ivanisevic collected his in strange-but-true fashion, too, winning Wimbledon in 2001 as a wild card with a world ranking of 125 in a final pushed to Monday because of rain.
“I guess Mondays are special for Croatians,” Cilic said.
This was likely the last Monday final at the U.S. Open. The men’s final is scheduled to move back to its traditional Sunday slot next year. In 2016, if construction proceeds according to plan, Ashe Stadium finally will be equipped with a retractable roof.
CBS, broadcasting the Open for the final time after 46 years, marked the occasion (and filled the airtime made vacant by this lopsided final) by showing footage of the classic 1991 U.S. Open match between Jimmy Connors and Aaron Krickstein: long a CBS rain-delay staple.
The ill will and suspense generated by that late-night tussle was quite a contrast with the straightforward, civil nature of the Nishikori-Cilic match.
It was the first Grand Slam singles final for Nishikori and Cilic, but only the 10th-seeded Nishikori did a fair impression of a rookie and a rather weary rookie at that.
“I was a little bit tight and nervous,” Nishikori said. “So many things to think about. I was trying to concentrate, but it wasn’t enough, I guess. Played too many tennis on the court these two weeks. Couldn’t fight one more match.”
There were only patches on Monday of the flashy, resilient tennis that had propelled him into the final with grueling, consecutive victories over the fifth-seeded Milos Raonic, the third-seeded Stan Wawrinka and the top-seeded Novak Djokovic.
Nishikori’s airborne forehand did not look quite so explosive Monday; his returns not quite as precise. And though he had managed to defuse the threat posed by Raonic’s fearsome serve in their fourth-round match, Cilic is a more well-rounded threat: rangy and athletic on the baseline as well as a big server.
He finished with 17 aces including four in one game in the second set, and more surprisingly also won 61 percent of his second-serve points. Time and again in this duel that lasted only 1 hour 54 minutes, he came up with a shot on the stretch to trump Nishikori.
His level of precision in the gusting winds that are part of the Ashe Stadium experience was remarkable, particularly with his two-handed backhand, which he hits relatively flat with little clearance over the net.
Nishikori said the match had been one of his worst of this tournament, adding, “But also, he was very aggressive and very fast.”
Nishikori was the first Asian man to play in a major singles final, but it turned out to be Cilic who made the deepest impression in New York. He fought his way through a tough five-set match in the fourth round in the heat against Gilles Simon of France and then swept past Berdych, Federer and Nishikori.
“I knew it’s possible, but I didn’t know that he can play 10 sets like this,” Ivanisevic said, referring also to the final set of the Simon match. “Nobody can play 10 perfect sets in a row. This is wow. Amazing.”
But then the final stretch of this men’s tournament was full of surprises. This was the first Grand Slam singles final since the 2005 Australian Open that did not include one of the so-called Big Four: Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.
“This is a little new fresh breath of air for tennis, and tennis needed this,” Ivanisevic said.
There were surely some dissenters in the sellout crowd who had purchased their tickets with Federer or Djokovic in their mind’s eyes. The resale value of tickets reportedly dropped, as well. But there were other perspectives, too.
“We’re in the most competitive city in the world,” said Julianna Obeid, who brought clients to the tennis on Monday and had no problem watching Nishikori and Cilic on center stage. “That’s what it’s all about. This is Darwinian. A new generation always comes to town. It’s true in tennis, too.”
And for a change, the champion celebrating in New York on late summer night was not named Federer, Djokovic, Nadal or Murray.
“All over Manhattan,” Cilic said of celebrating his victory Monday night before leaving New York on Tuesday night. “I hope it’s not going to be Hangover No. 4.”
Ben Rothenberg contributed reporting.
New York Times