Radiant Joy

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. Chris Trotman/Getty Images North AmericaPerhaps 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.

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