NEW YORK -- A new Grand Slam champion will be crowned on Monday when No. 11 Kei Nishikori takes on No. 14 Marin Cilic in a surprise cast for the U.S. Open final. Both men are into their first Slam finals after knocking off the pre-tournament favorites in the semifinals. Nishikori, 24, became the first Asian man to advance to a Slam final when he beat No. 1 Novak Djokovic 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3 in steamy conditions on Saturday afternoon. Cilic, 25, upstaged Nishikori's upset just hours later with a stunning 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 win over No. 3 Roger Federer. He is the first Croatian to make a Slam final since his coach and mentor Goran Ivanisevic won Wimbledon in 2001.
This is a match-up that shatters the mold set for Grand Slam finals over the last decade. For the first time since the 2005 Australian Open, none of the ATP's Big Four will be a part of a Slam final. Those four -- Djokovic, Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray -- have accounted for 36 of the last 38 major titles, with the two outliers being Juan Martin Del Potro (2009 U.S. Open) and Stan Wawrinka (2014 Australian Open). This will also be the first U.S. Open final contested by two men making their Slam final debuts since Patrick Rafter defeated Greg Rusedski in 1997. That was also the last time the U.S. Open final featured no top ten players.
Why Nishikori will win: And to think, Nishikori almost withdrew from the tournament due to a foot injury. He underwent minor foot surgery just weeks before the tournament and played just three hard court matches this summer. I even picked him to go out in the first round to American wildcard Wayne Odesnik. Six wins later he is full of confidence, in both mind and body, after beating three top five seeds -- Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka, and Djokovic -- to make the final. His all-around game has frustrated everyone. He handled Raonic's big serve, Wawrinka's power, and Djokovic's range and speed. It's his performances against Raonic and Wawrinka that will set him up well against Cilic.
The key for this match will be the return. The way Cilic was serving in the semifinals gave Federer minimal looks to break. The Swiss, who excels at getting returns in play, barely got 60 percent of them back. Meanwhile, Cilic ate up his second serves. That's precisely what Nishikori needs to avoid. He has to return well and keep some pressure on the Cilic serve.
Why Cilic will win: That serve. If Cilic can serve as well as he did against Federer it's hard to see where Nishikori will get his chances. Whenever he needed a big serve to get out of trouble, Cilic was able to find one. The task for Nishikori will be to get returns in play and then use his speed at the back the court to pressure Cilic into hitting a lot of balls and going for too much. Unlike Raonic, Cilic is solid hitter off the ground. He won't give Nishikori cheap points by trying to crash the net. He's confident in his ability to hit through the court from the baseline. Since surviving a physically grueling five-set win over Gilles Simon in the fourth round, Cilic hasn't lost a set, beating Tomas Berdych and Federer. He comes into Monday's final with a full tank of gas, something we can't say about Nishikori. If this goes five sets he'll be ready. Nishikori has had to work so much harder to get to the final.
What a difference a year makes. A year ago at this time Cilic was back home in Croatia serving out a four-month ban after testing positive for a banned substance he claims he accidentally ingested from an over-the-counter glucose tablet his mother purchased. "I truly believed he didn't do anything wrong in the sense that he did it on purpose," Federer said, lending his support to Cilic. "Was he stupid maybe? Maybe. You know, yeah. But I feel like I know him well enough, and I don't think he would ever do it." The time off was difficult, but it allowed his body to heal any long-standing injuries he was dealing with. It also gave him time to stop and reflect on his career. He missed the game. The pressure of having to play week in and week out dissipated. He just wanted to get back be part of the tour again. But perhaps even more importantly, the ban gave him an extended amount of time to just train. To work hard on the court, improve his physicality, his consistency, and his speed. It's all paid off. If he wins on Monday he will climb back up to his career-high ranking of No. 9.
What Nishikori said: "I just started playing points few days ago before the tournament. I didn't even know if I should come to New York, so I wasn't expecting nothing actually. But after playing first match and second match, I get more confidence on my foot and it was no pain at the moments. I was start sliding little more. But my tennis was there already. I was really trying to play one match at a time and now I'm here."
What Cilic said: "I feel in general I'm hitting the serve bigger, the shots are more compact, and I'm moving, I would say, very comfortably on the court. I'm able to run down some balls that I wasn't before. And even when I'm playing these long, long matches like the one with Simon, I'm able to recover quicker. I worked physically a lot. And also with Goran the intensity on the tennis court is pretty high. So I feel everything with that adds up to being better in all aspects."
Prediction: Cilic in four sets. But this is a tough one to call.