There is nothing like the first time and that specialness is exactly what Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic are feeling. One after the other they turned things upside down in tennis by defeating Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer to reach the final of the US Open.
Nishikori played stunning tennis to beat the world No.1 and stop him from reaching a fifth straight final at Flushing Meadow 6-4, 1-6, 7-6, 6-3 and then Cilic stopped Roger Federer from a possible 18th major 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
This marks the first time that two first timers have reached the final the US Open since Pat Rafter defeated Greg Rusedski in 1997. It is the first time at any major that two first timers have reached the final since the 2005 French Open when Rafa Nadal defeated Mariano Puerta. It is the first time that none of the big four (Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Andy Murray) are in a Grand Slam final since the Australian Open in 2005 when Marat Safin defeated Lleyton Hewitt – that’s 38 majors. The last time two players in a Grand Slam final who had not won one of the majors was at the 2008 Australian Open when Djokovic defeated Jo Wilfried Tsonga.
Nishikori created history by being the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam final and for both men it has taken six years since winning their first title on the tour to reach their maiden final at one of the majors.
Going into the final Nishikori has a 5-2 record against Cilic. They have played twice at the US Open and that record is split 1-1. This year they have faced each other twice and it was Nishikori who came out on top both times.
“I have to set up my mind for the final,” said Nishikori. “You try not to get nervous. Mentally I have to stay focused. I think that is the most important thing for me. The tennis is there but hopefully I can recover well (he also played back-to-back five setters) and try to focus.
“I have been playing (with Cilic) a couple of times, but he is a different story. He’s been playing really well, very aggressive, very fast tennis. I know he’s been getting stronger. It’s going to be a tough final.”
In tennis there has been plenty of talk about the “young guns” of tennis, the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and Nishikori and now the Japanese player is the first of them to make the breakthrough.
“This is definitely huge for Japan; it’s a big country with over 100 million people,” said Djokovic. “This can definitely be a great improvement for tennis in that country. He’s been around for the last couple of years and he’s been making a lot of success. But playing finals of a Grand Slam and now fighting for the title is definitely something different. He has gotten to another level and I’m sure that people will praise him.”
For Cilic it was the “best tennis of my life”. He picked quite a moment to beat Federer for the first time ever – he had lost to him five straight times of which four were on hard court. This situation was the same as last year when Federer lost to Tommy Robredo at the Open for the very first time.
Cilic explained that some of his inspiration came from Stan Wawrinka winning the Australian Open and seeing that he was able to beat the big names.
“Considering the huge occasion I was playing in, for the second time in the semifinals of a Grand Slam, it just can’t be more special,” said Cilic. “The crowd was rooting for Roger to come back; it wasn’t easy to deal with but my serve helped me a lot to get some free points to breathe a little easier. It was working perfectly.”
Cilic watched some, not all, of the Nishikori-Djokovic match and what he noticed was that the Japanese star was matching it with Djokovic from the baseline. It was impressive because Nishikori almost didn’t play the Open because he had an abyss removed from his big toe. All that is in the past as is the time Cilic spent away from the game. The future is here.
“It’s gonna be special day for both of us,” said Cilic. “An opportunity for both of us to win a Grand Slam, to be part of history. There will be huge emotions on the court. I am going to have to just focus on my game to break that rhythm of his and try to serve well. I think it’s gonna be a good tactical match up for the final.”
Federer made it clear that this is exciting for the game, to see different faces from time to time.
“I think people still enjoy seeing the guys that have seen for a while or often in the big matches but I think it’s definitely refreshing to some extent (to see this),” he said. “Everybody who gets to this stage of this kind of a competition deserves to be there. This is t for both of them. I hope they can play a good final.”