Marin Cilic played the U.S. Open final like he had an important dinner reservation in Midtown.
Utilizing a massive serve and flat, powerful groundstrokes to every corner of the court, the 6-foot-6 Croatian destroyed Japanese sensation Kei Nishikori, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, in just one hour and 54 minutes to capture his first Grand Slam title.
Cilic, 25, became the first Croatian to win a major title since his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, won Wimbledon in 2001.
Cilic double-faulted on the first of three match points, but then smacked a backhand winner into the open court on the second before falling down on his back in celebration. He then made his way into his players' box where he hugged his entourage, including Ivanisevic.
"Everything I was working for and dreaming came [true] today and I feel for all the other players that are working. I think this is a big sign and big hope that if you're working hard, things are going to pay off," said Cilic, who had lost five of his seven previous encounters with Nishikori.
Cilic picked up $3 million in prize money for the biggest win of his career and will move to No. 9 in the world, while Nishikori moves to No. 8.
Cilic missed last year's U.S. Open after testing positive for a banned supplement he said was given to him inadvertently by his mother. He missed four months on the tour but used that time to work with Ivanisevic on his game.
"I truly believed he didn't do anything wrong in the sense that he did [not do] it on purpose," Roger Federer said after losing to Cilic in the semifinals on Saturday. "Was he stupid maybe? Maybe. But I feel like I know him well enough, and I don't think he would ever do it."
Said Cilic after the biggest win of his life: "I think this is all hard work in these last several years and especially this last year. My team has brought something special to me, especially Goran. We were working really hard. Most important of all the things that he brought to me was enjoying tennis and always having fun. I think I enjoyed my best tennis over here and played the best tennis in my life."
Seeded at No. 14 and No. 10, Cilic and Nishikori had set up the highly unlikely final between two men ranked outside the Top 10 by knocking off the top two seeds in the semifinals. Nishikori took out No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic in four sets on Saturday before Cilic crushed five-time champion No. 2 Federer in just one hour and 45 minutes.
Whether this marks the "beginning of a new era" in men's tennis, as John McEnroe said on CBS during the match, remains unclear.
But Cilic became just the third man outside of the Big 4 of Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray to win a Grand Slam in the last 39 majors.
This marked the first Grand Slam final since the 2005 Australian Open without a member of the Big 4.
Still, Cilic didn't play as if he was nervous.
He dominated Nishikori with his serve and from the baseline, just as he had done to Federer. He banged out 17 aces and was broken just once on nine break-point attempts in the match while repeatedly serving in the 120- to 130-mph range and peaking at 134 mph. He hit 38 winners against 27 unforced errors.
"You never know when the nerves are going to kick in," Cilic said. "Both of us were pretty nervous in the first set but as soon as we got ourselves going, I was lucky to get out of the couple break points at 4-2 in the third."
Entering the match, Nishikori had spent nearly two more hours on court than Cilic, including back-to-back five-set epics when he upset No. 5 Milos Raonic and No. 3 Stan Wawrinka on the way to the semis.
In 2004, Nishikori left Japan as an eighth-grader to train at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. He became a worldwide sensation — especially back in Japan — by reaching the final.
Perhaps he just ran out of gas in the ultimate match.
"He was playing really well today," Nishikori said. "I couldn't play my tennis. I want to congratulate Marin and his team. ... It's a tough loss. ... Sorry couldn't get a trophy today but for sure next time. It was a really fun two weeks here."
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