The unexpected US Open final: Nishikori v Cilic
It’s the US Open final that no-one predicted and nobody is more surprised than Japan’s Kei Nishikori, the first Asian man to make a Grand Slam final who faces fellow first-timer Marin Cilic on Monday.
After top seeds Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer were disposed of in the semi-finals, the championship match will be the first not to feature Djokovic, Federer or Rafael Nadal since Australia in 2005.
No wonder Nishikori is still pinching himself after his 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (7/4), 6-3 win over Djokovic.
The 24-year-old's previous best Grand Slam run had been a quarter-final at the 2012 Australian Open.
Djokovic and Nishikoric post-match. PHOTOS: AFP
If form is any guide, then Nishikori should race away with the title as he boasts a 5-2 record over 25-year-old Cilic, including both meetings this year, on hard court in Brisbane and on Barcelona clay.
However, they have split their two past US Open duels, with Nishikori winning in 2010 and Cilic coming out on top two years ago.
“He’s been playing really well, very aggressive, very fast tennis. I know he’s been getting stronger,” said Nishikori.
The quietly-spoken Japanese has come a long way since his arrival in the US a decade ago not knowing a word of English.
Cilic too has endured a tough journey of his own over the last year, albeit a more controversial one. The 25-year-old 14th seed missed the 2013 US Open to serve a doping ban handed out after he tested positive for a banned stimulant contained in an over-the-counter supplement.
Fired up by indignation over the way the case was handled, Cilic is a man on a mission having bettered his previous Grand Slam best of a semi-final spot at the 2010 Australian Open.
Federer congratulating Cilic after the Croat beat him 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 at the US Open semi-finals.
“You have a lot of Grand Slams. You’re going to do well. But when the time starts to pass by, you are more anxious if it’s going to happen or it’s not going to happen," he said.
Final will be tactical duel
Cilic, who is coached by 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, believes the final will come down to a tactical duel.
“Kei hits the ball extremely well from the back of the court. I think I’m going to have to just focus on my game to break that little bit of rhythm and to try to serve well,” he said.
Monday’s final also offers up a contrasting clash of styles between the 1.78m, 68kg Nishikori and the bigger, heavier 1.98m, 82kg Cilic.
Power may often trump style on a fast hard court, but Michael Chang, the 1989 French Open champion who now coaches Nishikori, believes his man may have the edge.
“Taller guys have certain things that make it a little easier for them, the serve, but smaller guys have the ability to be a little quicker around the court, a little more agile a little more nimble. There’s always different ways to neutralize power,” said Chang.