A year ago, Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori arrived at the U.S. Open to little fanfare and without much in the way of expectations.
Neither had reached a Grand Slam final, let alone won a title. They could boast of one semifinal in 48 total appearances at majors - Cilic lost in that round at the 2010 Australian Open. Nishikori, meanwhile, only once had reached the quarterfinals at a major. Nishikori was seeded 10th, Cilic 14th.
And after two weeks of terrific tennis and breakthrough semifinal victories over Novak Djokovic (by Nishikori) and Roger Federer (by Cilic), there they were, meeting for the championship.
''We were both pretty nervous,'' Cilic recalls.
When play begins on the blue hard courts of Flushing Meadows next Monday, defending champion Cilic and runner-up Nishikori will rely on the good vibes generated by their U.S. Open performances 12 months ago.
They also know there is room to get better.
''Winning such a big title is always going to leave a mark, and it's left a huge, positive mark on me. I'm now more confident in my game,'' Cilic said. ''It's difficult to recreate those kinds of moments, but my mental part is definitely now (better) from winning the U.S. Open, and it's for sure helping me to prepare better for the tournaments - and for the big tournaments, especially.''
Forced to sit out the 2013 U.S. Open because of a doping suspension, Cilic beat Nishikori in straight sets in last year's final to become the first man from Croatia to win a Grand Slam title since his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, won Wimbledon in 2001. Nishikori, co-coached by 1989 French Open champion Michael Chang, was the first man from Japan to participate in a major semifinal since 1933, and he is the only man born in Asia to ever reach a major championship match.
Their matchup represented the first Slam final in nearly a decade - since Marat Safin beat Lleyton Hewitt at the 2005 Australian Open - that did not involve at least one of Federer, Djokovic or Rafael Nadal. That trio had won 34 of the preceding 38 major trophies; Andy Murray won two of the other four.
''I learned a lot of things and I got a lot of confidence beating Novak and all the top-10 guys,'' said Nishikori, who also defeated Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic en route to the final. ''Mentally, I got really strong. ... I am able to believe (in) myself a little more.''
The 25-year-old Nishikori, who is based in Bradenton, Florida, has had a solid 2015, getting to No. 4 in the rankings on the strength of three titles - only Djokovic and Federer have more - and 46 match wins - only Djokovic and Murray topped that.
''He doesn't necessarily need a game plan to beat guys. Playing his normal game is generally good enough,'' said John Isner, who lost to Nishikori in the final of the hard-court Citi Open this month. ''When he's on top of the baseline, his backhand is world-class. His backhand cross-court is incredible. He dictates play very well. And he's quick. And he's just very talented, very skilled. He knows what he's doing with the ball.''
One issue that's plagued Nishikori since turning pro at age 17 has resurfaced: injuries.
He pulled out of Wimbledon because of a bothersome left calf, for example, then withdrew from last week's Cincinnati Masters, citing a bum hip.
Staying fit, the 5-foot-11 (1.80-meter) Nishikori acknowledges, is ''one of the important things I have to work on.''
The 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) Cilic was sidelined at the start of this season, including the Australian Open, because of a problem with his right shoulder; he didn't win a match until April.
Cilic, whose game is built around a dangerous serve and flat groundstrokes, says the shoulder isn't a question mark these days.
Still, the 26-year-old has not made it to the final of any tournament this year.
''After the U.S. Open last year ... I was feeling that I'm going to be able to go very deep in the tournaments if I'm going to be playing well. That's the feeling I want to have every week through my career. The consistent part of my game wasn't the best and that's what I want to work on the most and that's where my biggest focus is,'' Cilic said. ''With my tennis, I still feel that there is a lot of improvements that I can do.''
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