Fittingly, a Grand Slam season that began with the victory of a long-suffering underdog ended with the triumph of still another. But whereas perennial Swiss No. 2 Stan Wawrinka faced one of tennis’s dominant Big Four at Melbourne, the big-serving Marin Cilic of Croatia was up against one of his own second-tier rivals, Kei Nishikori, who beat one of the Bigs in his U.S. Open semi while Cilic took out another.
Thus the final in the every-seat-taken (17,000 of them) Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York that a few days ago everyone expected to be a rematch of the Roger Federer-Novak Djokovic thriller at Wimbledon a couple months ago instead was a battle between upstart, relatively unknown players, neither one of whom ever had been in a Grand Slam final.
Cilic was totally dominant as he marched through the draw. Marcos Baghdatis retired while playing him in the first round, he easily beat Ilya Marchenko in the second, then he overcame Kevin Anderson and Gilles Simon in tough four and five setters, respectively, before going on his straight sets tear against Tomas Berdych, Federer, and Nishikori. In the final he hit 17 aces, recovered from two double-break points, and, in simple English, never gave the young man from Japan, the latest poster child for the Florida tennis academies, a chance. Nishikori is a quick, skillful, gritty player who can catch balls in the corners and return mighty crosscourt shots to the baseline, but, it turned out, Cilic can do this too, and much more.
Surely some of the credit for this belongs to Goran Ivanisevic, the only Croatian player to have won at Wimbledon (in 2002 against Pete Sampras) and Cilic’s coach since last year. Ivanisevic reportedly counseled Cilic, recovering from a controversial suspension for alleged drug use, to loosen up and enjoy himself. It is not known what advice Michael Chang, an American champ of the 1990s, gave Nishikori.
By all evidence Ivanisevic’s was good advice. Cilic, who is big, plays big. He serves at 130 mph, hits his returns of serve as hard as possible, and sets ups his winners like an executioner. But he is also a skillful defender, capable of using soft hands at the net and putting in the occasional drop shot, such as the one that set up his final point against Nishikori. He also was good in long rallies, taking his time to get to an opportunity to set up the put-away. This was less in evidence when he was playing the tensely devastating game against Federer, filled as it was with short points ending in shots into the net or out of bounds.
In fact, Cilic’s strength in this tournament came at least as much from his versatility as from his power: neither Federer (of all people) nor Nishikori (which might have been understandable) could figure out what he was doing and what to expect, other than that very hard first serve.
Although this year’s final at the U.S. Open suggests the Big Four era is teetering, it is not necessarily the end of civilized sports. Cilic and Nishikori congratulate their opponents, win or lose, and restrict their on-court antics to normal exuberance and stoic dismay. At 24 and 25, they represent a warning to American players in their 20s, if these want to make it to the top ranks before being overtaken by the rising cohort of American juniors who, this year, showed a great deal of promise.
Nishikori is the player who is most like the leading Americans, such as Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock. This should not surprise as he trained at the same Florida academies they went to, which emphasize a power game from the baseline as a foundation for whatever individual variety a player wants to add to his style. Cilic should be more threatening, because in the changes that he brought to his game during his disputed suspension (which caused him to miss last year’s U.S. Open), he loosened up and opened up.
High performance, in almost any sport, requires a classic, or basic, foundation, upon which must be found the ability to adapt and innovate and, as Ivanisevic counseled his star, enjoy. You know you are being yourself then, and it is only then that you begin to have a chance for the big time. Not to get overblown about this, but this is the key to progress in civilization. Even on the evidence of a match that was not marked by high drama, civilization marches on.
Notice to Readers: The American Spectator and Spectator World are marks used by independent publishing companies that are not affiliated in any way. If you are looking for The Spectator World please click on the following link: https://thespectator.com/world.