September 8, 2014
With mind and body in perfect harmony, Marin Cilic won his first Grand Slam final as though he had been playing them all his life. Former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, his fellow Croatian, looked close to breaking down as he saw all his coaching pay off so handsomely.
Cilic hardly put a foot wrong as he defeated Japan’s favourite, Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.
Whoever held their nerve best in the new environment was always going to triumph. That man was emphatically Cilic, who worked ruthlessly behind a booming serve but proved yet again that he had far more than aces up his sleeve. Lobs, drop-shots and volleys…he used them all to devastating effect. Perhaps the pressure eventually got to a nervous Nishikori, who was only too aware of the tennis mania sweeping Japan. After all, he had created that fervour with his superhuman performances in New York.
Japan’s pay-TV company and their player’s kit manufacturer had struggled to cope with the huge demand from Nishikori’s new followers. The star of the show knew he had the hopes of a nation – perhaps even a continent – resting on his young shoulders. Victory was a lot to expect from a man whose toe injury had required an operation earlier this summer, who hadn’t even been sure he would be able to play the US Open, yet had come through some marathon matches to reach the final against all odds.
We waited for those high-risk Nishikori backhands to graze the lines, those punishing forehands to blast a hole in those tough Cilic defences. It didn’t happen. The physical exertions of the latter stages at Flushing Meadows seemed to catch up with him, just as history beckoned. Nishikori didn’t quite freeze in the cooler temperatures. He simply wasn’t as relaxed and as daring as we had seen him previously. Did he believe he truly belonged? The limited aggression, the tight movement suggested otherwise.
No one could say these first-timers didn’t deserve their place in a Grand Slam final. Not after Nishikori had out-fought Novak Djokovic and Cilic had destroyed Roger Federer. Yet their progress was deemed so unlikely that the odds of a final between this pair had been something like 5000-1. If Cilic could match the level he had found against Federer, it was difficult to see Nishikori or indeed anyone surviving the onslaught.
The question was, could lightning strike twice? It seemed unlikely, because even Cilic admitted that he had never played that well before. But after surviving a break point in the opening game, Cilic quickly conquered any early doubts and discovered those heights yet again. In the sixth game he broke Nishikori, who paid the price for trying to swap power for subtlety during a lengthy rally. Asia’s big hope hadn’t yet caught fire and Cilic served out the set with an extraordinarily composed all-round display.
The taller man struck even earlier in the second set, blowing away Nishikori’s serve in the third game. It had been a nightmare 45 minutes for Kei and the world waited to see whether he could bounce back. He almost did so in the very next game, but squandered two break points. Nishikori was in the same situation at 2-5 down in the second and this time did eventually claw back the game against serve. The comeback was little more than a flicker. Cilic broke yet again to close the set with a clubbing forehand.
Nishikori’s only chance was if Cilic choked with the finishing tape in sight. And he did have trouble holding serve in the opening game if the third. Even then he prevailed and moved in for the kill. There was little resistance, even though you could feel the crowd willing the Japanese hero into some kind of comeback. He tried to find his best game. It remained elusive, lost somewhere in the demanding dreams of a nation.
There was just a glimpse when Cilic served for 5-2 and had to fend off three break points. He did so, with a blend of brutality and invention, to show that he is a giant not just physically but psychologically too.
Nishikori can still be proud, as can all of Japan, that he became the first Asian man to play a Grand Slam final. Perhaps this is only the beginning for him. Yet one word sums up the nerveless performance of the 2014 US Open winner, the clinical execution of his game plan. Chilling.