US Open, Final
(14) Čilić d. (10) Nishikori, 6/3 6/3 6/3
Marin Čilić has won the 2014 US Open, thus shortening by one entry the list of sentences I thought I’d never write. Precisely where it ranked on this list was difficult to ascertain, since it is both a long list and one that by definition isn’t written down. Perhaps it should be. I spent almost as long pondering this irony as it took for Čilić took to defeat Kei Nishikori in yesterday’s final, which wasn’t very long at all.
As Major finals go, it was a bit of a fizzer. One doubts whether that matters to Čilić, or indeed whether it matters all that much to anyone. The quality of the encounter is soon forgotten when history is being made. Čilić is the first Croatian man to win the US Open, defeating the first Japanese man to reach a Major final. It was the first Major that didn’t feature either Nike or adidas clothing since 2003, and the first that lacked any representatives from the current top three since the late Triassic period.
It was therefore a final that no one anticipated, neither before the tournament kicked off, nor even by the semifinals, which the tournament continues to schedule on the last Saturday, and persists in calling Super. With Rafael Nadal absent, it seemed certain that either Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer would claim the title, and probable that they’d face off for it on the third Monday. It was a prediction that saw some revision in Federer’s quarterfinal against Gael Monfils, as the Swiss first languished in a two set hole, then later faced a pair of match points. Having weathered those squalls, one confidently predicted smoother conditions ahead. Late-career Federer is all about the attack, and his semifinal opponent boasted nothing like Monfils’ defensive prowess.
There was similarly little chance that Nishikori would survive Djokovic’s untiring ministrations. The Japanese is prone to physical breakdown and defaults at the best of times, and these were hardly that. He’d arrived in New York with an injured foot, and was coming off consecutive five-set, four-hour-plus victories over Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka. A Djokovic – Federer final – eagerly desired by the tournament, the broadcasters and the vast majority of fans – appeared all but guaranteed. It was thus rather a shock when Djokovic and Federer contrived to win only one set between them.
I have seen Čilić play well before – doubtless we all have – but never quite like this, and never in a manner that suggested he could maintain it through the last three rounds of the most important tournament of his life. If anything, that was the standard word on Čilić: He might overpower lesser opponents for a time, but sooner rather than later his weaknesses would be exposed by top-class opposition. Those weaknesses, in no particular order, were inadequate movement, inconsistency from the ground, a serve that was underpowered given the altitude from which it arrived, a tendency to tighten up, and an insufficiently ruthless disposition. (Upon one occasion Čilić’s relatively placid nature served him well, when he was the last man unscathed after David Nalbandian displayed the wrong kind of killer instinct in the Queens final several years ago, gifting Čilić what was until yesterday his most prestigious title.)
Those weaknesses have been shored up. If I’d feared that Čilić’s movement would be exposed by Federer’s redoubled willingness to attack the net, I needn’t have. Čilić is still no Monfils, but this is mostly a good thing, and he was more than up to the task. The groundstrokes that cut through the wind against Berdych, cut right through Federer in the semifinal, and wrought similar damage on Nishikori in the final.
Federer had recovered from two sets down against Monfils, but despaired of doing so against the Croat, given he could barely land returns in the court. Čilić’s serve, by his own admission, was the key shot in the final, since it ensured the wind was only a problem for Nishikori. The mechanical improvement of this shot owes a great deal to his coach Goran Ivanisevic, whose own serve was famously monstrous. Indeed, even Čilić’s extravagant knee- and back-bend looks rather less comical when the delivery itself is so potent, reminding us Goran’s service motion looked pretty goofy too, unless you were facing it.
And when it comes to killer instincts, simply observe how unhindered Čilić looked when serving out sets (especially against Federer, where he barely conceded a point), or how focussed he was when breaking in each game in which he created an opportunity, invariably early in each set. What was so striking about Čilić’s mastery was how replicable it all looked. In winning his first Grand Slam title, he already looked like a multiple Grand Slam champion.
Of course, so had Richard Krajicek. Čilić now joins the special list of men who’ve won their first Major in their Major final, a list that features no shortage of champions who looked unbeatable for a couple of weeks, but only once. But even here it’s important to establish some differentiation. Čilić wasn’t fortunate to win this title, coasting like Stephen Bradbury through a collapsed draw while the favourites gagged, stumbled or simply fell in a heap. He tamed a tough draw - including a five setter against Gilles Simon at his irritatingly tenacious best - and elevated when it mattered. Čilić didn’t drop a set in the last three rounds.
Nishikori on the other hand dropped a handful of sets, though one cannot blame him for that. He was exceptional in reaching the final, but sadly wasn’t once he got there. The cornerstones of Nishikori’s game are quick hands, great movement and an attacking disposition. (He’s one of those rare metaphorical buildings with multiple cornerstones.) Commentators often term him a counter-puncher, based, one imagines, on his size and speed. But he is no more a counter-puncher than Nikolay Davydenko or Sebastien Grosjean, and like them he rarely hesitates to attack when the slightest opportunity arises. On certain days and one certain surfaces, a sustained flat-hitting assault can be hard to repel, even for the best defenders in the sport. But on other days the calibration is off, and it never quite works. Nishikori had one of those days on Monday. Nerves are a funny thing, unless, like Čilić’s serve, they’re happening to you in real time while millions of people watch.
Quick hands mean little if your legs don’t get you to the ball in good time. Nishikori’s legs looked leaden almost from the outset – a fatal combination of nerves and weariness. He created more chances as the match wore down, but it was too little and it was too late. Čilić steadied, and held, then held again. With a final fine backhand he won, and collapsed joyously onto his back. Everyone who’d ever wondered how Čilić would celebrate a Slam title now had their answer. He radiated the kind of joy that begs to be shared. Sixteen thousand kilometres away, I know I felt it. Everyone felt it.
Čilić thus moves beyond the niche notoriety of tennis fandom into the broader kind of fame by which even those only vaguely interested in tennis, such as John McEnroe, have heard of him. He’s done the rounds in New York, as all US Open champions are obliged to. He’ll soon do the same on a smaller though infinitely more rambunctious scale in Zagreb. If he wasn’t a big name in Croatia before, he certainly is now. (Nishikori’s name was already big in Japan, and by becoming the first Japanese name to reach a Major final it hasn’t shrunk.)
If anyone took Čilić lightly before, you can be certain they won’t now, though really I doubt whether anyone did take him lightly. It is unlikely that any top pro upon discovering the Croat as his next opponent put his feet up and gave his coach the day off. Really, Čilić has ensured that the media won’t take him lightly. Never again will he be permitted to slip through a draw beneath the radar, no matter how tightly he cleaves to the topography, or even burrows through it. He might not win another match between now and January, but you can bet Bruce McAveny will bury us beneath an avalanche of Čilić stats come the Australian Open.
But that’s a concern for another time. Unlike the Australian Open, the US Open has always been wholesomely free from Channel 7’s taint. From next year, it will be free from CBS’s taint, as well, which will permit a measure of sanity to be restored to the schedule. In the meantime, choice of broadcaster was a toss-up. Sky Sports was mostly a mess, alternating between a syndicated USO Live feed and the usual home-grown derangement whenever Andy Murray graced the court. Murray’s four-set loss to Djokovic was immediately declared the match of the tournament, although it certainly wasn’t. US Open Radio was as ever the worst of the online radio options. Gigi Salmon’s presence meant that the BBC5Live online service was the best.
In the end Eurosport carried the day. There’s a lot to be said for the common touch, with common here covering Mats Wilander’s impish levity, Frew McMillan’s measured murmur, Jason Goodall’s wryness and Chris Bowers’ tendency to channel Stefan Zweig: ‘There are times at the US Open when you wonder if the players are mere entertainment, like a string quartet at a Viennese street café.’ You said it, Chris.