Cilic's Open Triumph Simply a Clinic

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NEW YORK - His demolition of Roger Federer two days ago was no fluke.

In a clinical display of controlled power tennis, Marin Cilic easily dispatched crowd favorite Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 to claim the 2014 US Open and his first Grand Slam title. For the soon-to-be 26-year-old Croatian, it was the culmination of a fortnight in which he was clearly in the “zone,” that rarified level where everything flows and nothing is missed.

The stat line was impressive: Cilic notched 17 aces (in only 14 service games), 38 winners to only 27 unforced errors on a windy evening, won 11 of 13 points at net, and converted five of 11 break points.

Just two days after Cilic appeared to have played the match of his life against Federer in the semifinals, he topped that level Monday. A remarkable stat – Cilic spent less than four hours combined in his semifinal and championship match victories. Cilic did face two stiff tests while defeating Kevin Anderson and Gilles Simon in the third and fourth rounds respectively, but he was absolutely dominant in his wins over three top 10 players - No. 6 Tomas Berdych in the quarters, second-seeded Federer in the semis, and now No. 10 Nishikori.

Cilic, the 14th seed, is the lowest seeded champion at the US Open since Pete Sampras claimed his final Slam title at the 2002 Open, when he was seeded 17th.   

And, speaking of Sampras, Cilic’s confidence on his service games was Sampras-like, with his fluid motion producing vicious speed and uncanny placement leaving Nishikori utterly bereft; indeed, it’s hard to come up with a solution when one is facing repeated 130 mph serves out wide. And even when Cilic faced break points (saving nine of 10) he calmly swatted them away with a palpable, newly formed poise – an attribute that he, admittedly, owes in no small part to Goran Ivanisevic, his fellow Croatian and coach. Cilic has repeatedly stated that Ivanisevic has helped him to relax and fulfill his vast potential.

Even more gratifying for Cilic is the fact that just a year ago he was forced to miss the US Open because of a drug suspension. Originally banned for two years, Cilic’s appeal – that he had mistakenly taken the banned substance in a glucose pill – was accepted and he ended up being suspended for a period of only four months.

Nishikori was simply never in the match. And even when he was able to break Cilic in the second set it was of little use as Cilic had already built up a two-break advantage. The strongest part of Nishikori’s game is his return of serve, and for him not to be able to capitalize on his strength was extremely frustrating for the 24- year-old Japanese star.

Furthermore, Nishikori never was able to punish Cilic off the ground. And this was due to Cilic’s own superb baseline game, just as it was when he defeated Federer and Berdych in the previous rounds. Cilic continually took the ball even earlier than did Nishikori and was able to find consistent depth off of both the forehand and backhand wings. Simply put – when a dominating server like Cilic is able to back up his service games with immaculate baseline play, it’s nearly impossible to overcome.

A question many are now asking is thus – does Cilic’s win, combined with Stan Wawrinka’s triumph in Australia at the start of 2014 mean that the era of the Big Four (Nadal, Djokovic – and to a lesser extent recently Federer and Andy Murray) is waning? Not really.

For one thing both Nishikori and Cilic – as well as Wawrinka – have been around for some time now. Nishikori and Cilic are in tennis “middle age” while Wawrinka is approaching 30. And the other two players who are usually mentioned as the “future champions” of the sport – Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov – are both approaching 24, with neither yet reaching the final of a Slam.

What is likely to happen in the next couple of years is that a few more fissures in the dam of the Big Four, but if Nadal (28-year-old) and Djokovic (27) stay healthy – or, rather, Nadal stays healthy and Djokovic adjusts to the domestic life with wife and child - they are still likely to be the players most capable of dominating seasons for the next year or two.

For Federer to replicate his superb 2014, a year that saw him reach the Wimbledon final and US Open semis, it will be increasingly difficult as he will turn 34 before the 2015 US Open. Having said that, few predicted he would play as well as he did the last several months. Murray is even more of a question mark as he has struggled with both physical injuries and a seeming lack of motivation since the stirring Wimbledon triumph on his native soil in 2013.

One gets the sense that the next era will be represented by players most aren’t familiar with yet, who are now in their late teens and who will suddenly explode onto the tennis scene in a few years’ time. 

But for the time being tennis should relish its newest champion and Slam finalist and be glad that 2015 is setting up to be an even more competitive season for the sport. 

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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