Roundtable: Taking stock of semifinal stunners at U.S. Open
The U.S. Open men's semifinals produced two stunners on Saturday: Kei Nishikori upended No. 1 Novak Djokovic 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3, and Marin Cilic dismantled second-seeded Roger Federer 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
The twin upsets end a streak of 38 Grand Slam tournaments in which Djokovic, Federer or Rafael Nadal (who missed the U.S. Open with a wrist injury) made the final. Instead, the 11th-ranked Nishikori, 24, and the 14th-ranked Cilic, 25, both advanced to their first championship match at a major.
SI.com convened a roundtable of tennis writers to assess the surprising results and look ahead to Monday's final.
1. What's your biggest takeaway from the men's semifinals?
Jon Wertheim: As trite as it sounds -- after years of talking about it -- we finally have some regime change. We've seen the Federer/Djokovic/Nadal trio lose before. But never quite like this, to two players who began the tournament ranked outside the top 10, with no real injury factor. The first and second seeds were outplayed and outworked in six of seven sets. Neither underdog blinked as the pressure mounted. We pause to acknowledge Federer/Djokovic/Nadal, as this is the first time in almost a decade (!) that a Grand Slam final will be played without at least one of them. But Saturday's results suggest that the next generation is finally here.
Courtney Nguyen: I think the days of penciling two of the Big Four into a Slam final are over. They'll still be a force -- especially a healthy Nadal -- but they will no longer have a stranglehold on titles. We've seen the tide change this season, beginning with Stan Wawrinka's title at the Australian Open, where he beat Djokovic and Nadal, and continuing with four first-time Slam semifinalists in Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov (Wimbledon), Milos Raonic (Wimbledon) and Ernests Gulbis (French Open). There are more openings, more opportunities for the "lesser" guys to get through the draw. And Nishikori/Cilic didn't feel like a fluke. Those guys believed they could win, just as Gael Monfils did in his five-set quarterfinal loss to Federer.
Richard Deitsch: Nishikori has the goods to win majors. That might not come on Monday, but his shot-making talent and movement are impossible to ignore. Plenty inside the game have predicted a breakthrough, and here it is now that he’s healthy. He was sensational against Djokovic, whether hitting sharp-angle winners or out-grinding one of the best grinders in history. What an effort.
Andrew Lawrence: The Federer effect is coming full circle. Back in the day, when stars like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were on the downslope of their careers, it was anyone's game. And then Federer came along to bring order. The more he dominated, the more it inspired Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray to meet his level. What's funny is that when those three reached Federer's level, we didn't much consider whether anyone could challenge those four as fiercely as they challenge themselves. All the while, it seems, the upstarts were working and plotting. Nishikori's victory over Djokovic and Cilic's win over Federer were much in the same vein as Wawrinka's Aussie triumph: no fluke, a straight-up beat-down. Monday's final could herald a shift in a game that has become predictably lovable. And right now, it's tough to say whether that would be a good or a bad thing.
2. Which result was more surprising?
Wertheim: Good question. Federer is 33 and has often struggled with big, flat hitters who can dictate with power and neutralize his art and his options with their sheer force. I thought he would win, based in part on form, in part on having beaten Cilic last month in Toronto to improve to 5-0 in the series and in part because of his crowd advantage. But this is not a pick-me-up-off-the-floor upset. Cilic played sublimely. In the case of Nishikori, he out-Djokoviced Djokovic. He played with more urgency and focus. He was demonstrably fitter (this, after back-to-back five-setters) and he returned brilliantly. Like Djokovic, he deployed sneaky and opportunistic offense to complement defense. It wasn't just the result that was surprising but also the "story of the match," as Jim Courier says.
Nguyen: Cilic's rout of Federer. Nishikori had shown more against the big guys, having toppled Djokovic in 2011, defeated Federer at the Sony Open in March and nearly upset Nadal on clay at the Madrid Open in May before retiring with a back injury. But Cilic? He had been 0-5 against Federer, along with 0-10 against Djokovic and 18-47 against top-10 opponents. Yet Cilic broke Federer four times and impressed me with his composure. Cilic has been known for blinking in pressure moments, but on Saturday he closed out his biggest victory with three aces and a backhand winner for a love hold. He took the racket out of Federer's hand.
Deitsch: Cilic’s clinical takedown of five-time champion Federer. He was lights-out from the first ball, pushing Federer around the court and winning 87 percent of his first-serve points. Cilic was sensational on his return game as well. Given Federer's momentum from rallying past Monfils and his 5-0 record against Cilic, the smart money appeared to be on Federer. Dead wrong.
Lawrence: Nishikori's victory, by a mile. It's one thing to survive the withering late-summer humidity in New York, but it's quite another to outlast the tour's resident iron man -- and in a high-stakes match. This is a player who had played five-setters in his last two rounds, too. If anyone should've been panting his way off the court, it should've been Nishikori. But Nishikori not only handled Djokovic but also made him look like his old-old self -- the guy in the ball cap who would constantly gasp for air and call for the trainer. That showed me something.
3. You're CBS. What's your promo for Monday's final?
Wertheim: "Um, yeah, did you hear the NFL Network is giving us some Thursday-night games? Those should be fun!" ... "Stick around for The Big Bang Theory repeat immediately following the match!" ... "We're outta here. You wanted to pay $800 million for 11 years of this, ESPN? Go nuts."
Seriously, I think you play the first-time-winner card and stress that while this match might not feature two familiar names, both players are deserving. You note the contrast in styles and physiques. You also reinforce that this is the reality of tennis in 2014. It's a global sport and you have to be ready for a Japanese player to face a Croat. (And then you exhale, knowing that this is your last telecast.)
Nguyen: It won't be a ratings boon, but having two quality players vie for their biggest win -- and with one of them eyeing history -- will make for good drama. Nishikori will try to become the first Asian man to win a major title. He's a big deal in Japan and a victory could enliven that market for tennis. You also have two of the more unheralded star coaching hires getting their due. Much has been made of Stefan Edberg's partnership with Federer and Boris Becker's place in Djokovic's camp, but now we have Michael Chang's excitable presence in Nishikori's box against Goran Ivanisevic's quiet intensity in Cilic's. Come for Chang's pizza cap, stay for Goran's non-manicured beard.
Deitsch: There is no sugarcoating it: The viewership is going to be small and perhaps a record low. It’s nearly an impossible sell to the casual sports fan who is unlikely to have any familiarity with these players. I think you push the rising-stars angle and highlight the celebrity coaching angle.
Lawrence: "Tonight on Two and a Half Men -- a twist NO ONE saw coming!" And then pull a reverse Heidi: Run 10 minutes of this week's episode, then interrupt it for tennis. This way, you're guaranteed the strong initial viewing numbers that will lead to a high Nielsen rating.
4. Who will win the final?
Wertheim: Cilic. I suspect this will be one of these occasions where the ability to handle the moment will loom larger than the X's and O's. Both players are first-time major finalists coming off their biggest victories. Who can sustain Saturday's form and govern the nerves better? Both should be physically ready. The defense and speed of Nishikori versus the power and depth of Cilic could lead to an interesting match. Maybe this is the recency effect, but I have a hard time seeing a loss for Cilic, not after that display of power and accuracy in the second semifinal.
Nguyen: Cilic. I'm going against the numbers here. Nishikori has beaten him five of seven times, including both matches this year and their only meeting in 2013. But with Cilic's serve giving him easy holds, I favor him this time.
Deitsch: Cilic. I think it will go five and be very fun viewing.
Lawrence: Cilic. Especially if he serves and moves as well as he did on Saturday.