Marin Cilic clinched his place in the semifinals of the U.S. Open with victory over Tomas Berdych.
Cilic beats Nishikori in U.S. Open final
04:21 - Source: CNN

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Marin Cilic defeats Kei Nishikori in New York to claim his first major

Cilic and Nishikori were each playing in their first grand slam final

A year ago Cilic didn't play at the U.S. Open as he served a drug ban

Nishikori was trying to become the first Asian man to win a major

CNN  — 

Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic have often been talked about this year as being part of the next generation of players who can break up the dominance of tennis’ Big Four.

But judging by his display at the U.S. Open, Marin Cilic could be the most likely candidate.

Cilic became only the third men’s player outside Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray to win a grand slam title since early 2005 when he crushed Kei Nishikori 6-3 6-3 6-3 in under two hours in New York on Monday.

Few, however, would have seen it coming – last year the 25-year-old Croatian didn’t play at the season’s final major because he was serving a drug suspension.

Cilic felt aggrieved when he received his nine-month ban after testing positive for a banned stimulant he said got into his system accidentally.

It was later reduced to four months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled that the initial punishment handed out by the International Tennis Federation was too severe.

He returned late last year with extra gusto – and a serve made even better by his charismatic coach, countryman and idol, Goran Ivanisevic.

Ivanisevic himself was one of the biggest servers in the history of the men’s game.

“In this last year my team has brought something special to me, especially Goran,” Cilic, who pocketed $3 million, told the crowd. “We’re working really hard, but most important of all the things he brought to me was enjoying tennis and always having fun.

“I think I enjoyed my best tennis over here and I played the best ever in my life.

“One of the biggest pieces of advice Goran gave me this tournament was to not think too much,” he later told Britain’s Sky Sports. “Toss the ball, hit it, play your game, be aggressive. Try to be relaxed.”

The 6-foot-6 Cilic overpowered Federer in the semifinals in straight sets and did the same against the diminutive Nishikori, firing 17 aces and winning 80% of his first-serve points.

In the sixth game of the second set, Cilic hit four straight aces to hold to love. And when it wasn’t his thunderous serve, it was his heavy ground strokes that pinned back his Japanese opponent.

While Ivanisevic won Wimbledon in 2001 to send his nation into a frenzy, Nishikori was bidding to become the first Asian man to claim a grand slam singles title.

Back at home ahead of the finale, excitement soared to unprecedented levels after Nishikori upset Djokovic in the semifinals.

Replicas of his shirt were sold out, his racket was in high demand and television viewers bought subscriptions in vast numbers to watch the final against Cilic that began at 6 a.m. in Tokyo.

Alas, they were disappointed.

But the 24-year-old Nishikori still made history by becoming the first Asian man to play in a grand slam singles final.

Remarkably, he didn’t know if he would be able to compete in New York this year because he had surgery to remove a cyst from his toe a month ago and missed warmup tournaments in Toronto and Cincinnati.

“He was playing really well today and I couldn’t play my tennis,” Nishikori told the crowd. “It’s a really tough loss but I’m happy to come into the final.

“It was a fun two weeks.”

Monday marked the first occasion since the 2005 French Open that two players in their maiden grand slam final faced off, leading Ivanisevic to proclaim beforehand that Cilic and Nishikori would be nervous.

Both began the tournament outside the top 10, though they’re now in it.

“They are both climbing to Mount Everest,” Ivanisevic told Sky Sports. “I don’t know who is going to stick the flag, (a) Japanese or Croatian.”

Cilic, though, seemed relaxed from the outset.

He smiled as he walked in the tunnel that led to the biggest court in tennis, during the coin toss and when he took part in the pre-match photo.

It turns out he was bluffing.

“The night before I was completely relaxed,” said Cilic. “I was feeling that it’s just another match, another day. But a couple of hours before the match the nerves started to kick in and I was a bit nervous.

“I didn’t know what to expect on the court.”

Cilic – who entered the encounter with a 2-5 record against Nishikori – nonetheless set the tone by saving a break point in the first game with a fine running forehand cross court.

Whether it was nerves or the different conditions – it was cooler and slower than when he downed Djokovic – Nishikori often mistimed his shots in the first set.

He showed his frustration at 2-4 after he struck a short ball that allowed Cilic to pounce with a forehand. Nishikori never did turn things around, finishing with 19 winners and 30 unforced errors.

Cilic was broken for the only time as he attempted to close out the second set but then broke straight back to take a two-set lead.

Nishikori engineered five-set magic against Raonic and Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round and quarterfinals, respectively, but there would be no stretching Cilic to five sets.

Wawrinka beat Nadal to win the Australian Open in January, although the Spaniard was severely hampered by a bad back.

Another break handed Cilic the lead in the third set and when he fended off three break points in the seventh game, the match was essentially over.

After double faulting on a first match point – he tried to finish matters in style with a second-serve ace – there was no mistaking on the second match point.

Cilic ripped a backhand cross-court that gave Nishikori no chance and he collapsed to the court before making his way up to his player box to celebrate.

The celebrations will intensify when he returns to Croatia.

“Everybody from home was telling me it was a huge day for Croatia,” Cilic said. “Everybody was stuck to the TVs.”

A continuation of this form and Cilic can expect to be celebrating much more in the future.

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