Three thoughts from Marin Cilic’s 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Kei Nishikori in the U.S. Open final on Monday night:
This match felt like a second-rounder. Ashe Stadium was a scene, but there were a lot more open blue chairs than one would expect at this stage of the tournament. It's hard to say if that’s because tri-state working stiffs were caught up at the office or uninspired to cut out early for a matchup between two first-time Grand Slam finalists who entered the match ranked outside the top 10.
Whatever the reason, those people were spared the emotional letdown that the pro-Nishikori crowd suffered when the free-swinging Cilic blasted the Japanese underdog off the court in one hour and 54 minutes. Usually a metronomic hitter from the baseline, Nishikori’s rhythm was greatly disrupted by the power and pace of Cilic’s groundstrokes and serve, which rained down in excess of 130 mph and produced 17 aces.
Even when Nishikori’s desperation kicked in early in the third set, elevating the standard of competition, the match still felt too small for the venue -- as if it belonged in Louis Armstrong Stadium or even the Grandstand. When Nishikori did create break chances, the 25-year-old Cilic forcefully wiped them away or benefited from his opponent's errors. Nishikori broke once in nine opportunities. The fight was legit. A Slam was on the line, after all. And yet, it didn’t seem fair.
Cilic could have staying power. He is young, big, strong and possesses a dynamite first serve and devastating power off the baseline, which redefines what it means to lean in. Furthermore, he easily navigated a tough draw that included a fourth-round opponent (Giles Simon) with a taste for protracted combat (over whom Cilic triumphed in five sets in his one big test), a three-time major semifinalist (Tomas Berdych), a 17-time Slam winner (Roger Federer) and an up-and-coming player who dismissed top-seeded Novak Djokovic (Nishikori).
Cilic resembles another 6-foot-6 heavy hitter who had his Slam breakthrough at the U.S. Open: Juan Martin del Potro. The Argentine, too, looked like the real deal after mowing down Rafael Nadal and Federer in the last two rounds five years ago, but wrist injuries have set him back. If Cilic, now up to No. 9 from No. 16 as he solidifies his comeback from last year's four-month doping suspension, can remain healthy, he has the weapons to continue his ascent.
It’s not all bad for Nishikori. No, he didn’t play up to his standard and was a bit too easily overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment and Cilic’s power. But this was a fantastic fortnight for the 24-year-old, who would’ve been well within his right to skip this tournament after having a cyst removed from his right foot a month ago. And yet he stuck it out, making his deepest run at a Slam. It will lift him three spots to a career-high No. 8.
Surely, there will be other big matches for him down the road. His dismantling of Djokovic in the semifinals showed that Nishikori has more than enough game to fill a big stage. But sustaining his place in the upper echelon for the long term will depend in part on how much he can improve his serve -- a weak first stroke, yes, but somewhat reminiscent of the one Nadal used to trot out before he became an all-surface demon.