By Jane Voigt
It was rough, but not tumble. No matter. History was made today at The Billie Jean King National Center as Croatian Marin Cilic overpowered Kei Nishikori to win his first U.S. Open men’s singles championship and first Grand Slam title.
Cilic, the No. 14 seed, dominated from start to finish in his 63 63 63 victory. Over the course of the semifinal and today’s final he never dropped a set, an utterly amazing feat more likely seen from a player whose footprints had previously marked Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“I think this is all hard work in the last several years,” Cilic told fans inside the world’s largest tennis stadium. “My team has brought something special. Most important thing was fun.”
This marks the second time in 2014 that a man who had never won an ATP Masters 1000 title or ATP 500 title went on to win a Grand Slam. Stan Wawrinka, who won The Australian Open in January, joins Cilic in this distinction.
“Amazing performance. Amazing two weeks for me,” Cilic told CBS. “I had to take some risks in critical moments. But the belief Goran [Ivanisevic, his coach] brought to me, and the joy on the tennis court.”
The last time a Croatian won a Grand Slam was at Wimbledon in the 2001 when Ivanisevic won his only major title. It, too, was played on a Monday. “I think the stars crossed,” Marin said. “Monday’s are good for Croatians.”
In the stats department, Cilic chalked up stellar grades. He hit 17 aces, won 80% of his points on first serves and 61% of points on his second serve. The average speed of his first serve was 124 M.P.H. compared to 108 M.P.H. from Nishikori. Cilic’s ratio of winners to unforced was very positive; he connected with 38 winners and committed only 27 unforced errors.
“Everything I was working for came today,” Cilic said. “If you’re working hard, things are going to pay off.”
Cilic defeated Tomas Berdych (No. 6) and Roger Federer (No. 2) in straight sets, on his way to the title. His toughest competition came from Gilles Simon, the 26th seeded player from France. That match went the distance, with Cilic a couple points away from elimination.
Cilic is the lowest seeded player at No. 14 to win the U. S. Open since Pete Sampras won in 2002. He was seeded No. 17.
Ivanisevic has been instrumental in improving Cilic’s belief in himself and his game, which has contributed to his results.
“You can’t sort of believe in yourself if you’re not performing well on the court and if you’re not performing well on the big occasions against big players,” Cilic said Saturday after his defeat of Roger Federer in the semifinals. “Over the last few months I felt I played really well. I was close in some matches, and just they gave me more belief. When I’m playing now these bigger matches I feel like if I’m going to play well I have a good chance. That’s a different mind set. Before I felt that I should play more than what I’m able, and then, you know, the game breaks.”
Cilic did not play at the Open last year. He was suspended for nine months last September when a urine sample he submitted at the BMW Open tournament in Munich tested positive for a prohibited substance called nikethamide. The Independent Tribunal found that Cilic did not take the substance in order to enhance his performance. Therefore, the suspension was reduced to four months. Cilic thought the ruling was unfair, but used the time to improve his fitness and game.
Whether this final, which did not feature one of the Big Four tennis players, proves to be a precedent for upcoming Grand Slams is a question only the future will tell. However, that it was the second time in one year that an ‘unknown’ player upset the upper echelon indicates that the hallowed grounds are shaking, if only a little.
Congratulations to Marin Cilic. Well deserved.