TENNIS has a new young champion. Whether Marin Cilic is at the vanguard of the much discussed, long awaited power shift after beating Kei Nishikori in three quick sets to win the 2014 US Open on Monday night we will discover in what now looms as the most intriguing year in the sport for a decade.
At last, after 10 years of dominance by a small handful of great players, tennis has what invigorates every area of life, from historic referendums to grand slam finals: uncertainty.
What we do know is that the Croatian is a history man, bad and good. The player whose career looked wrecked beyond repair when he was banned for drugs in 2013 finishes 2014 on top of the pile, champion in the closing major.
He is the first player from his country to reach a slam final since his coach, Goran Ivanisovic, won Wimbledon in 2001 â€“ and how the big man went berserk in the stands when the fourth of his playerâ€™s backhand winners left Nishikori rooted to the baseline after an hour and 54 minutes for a clinical 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 win.
â€œMy team have brought something special to me, especially Goran,â€ Cilic said. â€œThe most important thing he brought to me is joy in tennis, having fun. I think I played the best tennis in my life. For all the other players who work hard, this is a sign that it is going to pay off.â€
Nishikori, who a few weeks ago thought a slowly healing cyst on his right foot might exclude him from the tournament, said, â€œHe was playing really well today, I couldnâ€™t play my tennis. It was a really tough loss but I am really happy to be in my first final.â€
The Croatian had the bigger weapons, held his nerve better on the big points and fully deserved the victory. He travelled without the support of a single journalist from his homeland but the supporters who dotted the stadium wearing the distinctive red-and-white checked colours of Croatia certainly made their presence felt in a cavernous setting designed for raucous passion.
His 300th career win on his sixth visit to New York earned him not only $3m but 2,000 ranking points to lift him seven places to No 9 in the world, back inside the top 10 for the first time since April, 2010, simultaneously shuffling Andy Murray back to No 11, his lowest placing since June, 2008. Murrayâ€™s task of reaching the end-of-season ATP World Tour Finals got more difficult as Cilic bounds up to the top five on that list.
These are the subtle but significant indicators of change in tennis.
Although Murray said after losing to Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals that the prospect of missing a place in London did not concern him greatly, it will do nothing for his self-confidence, and he finds himself bobbing about in the same lifeboat as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, whom he beat here to break his drought against top 10 players since winning Wimbledon last year.
This, though, was a night to savour for the wider possibilities it opens up for players who have been trying to bang down the door on the Big Four for years. It was the final that was not supposed to happen. We were supposed to be watching Federer and Djokovic in a rematch of their Wimbledon final.
But those great players fell to these fine players in the semis. Cilic sealed it with one of the best serves in the game, a punishing two-fisted backhand that steadily dismantled Nishikoriâ€™s defensive game, as well as a delightful array of forehand winners.
He got to the final with 81 aces â€“ 13 of them outfoxing Federer on Saturday â€“ and put another 17 past Nishikori, three of them in a row to hold to love in the sixth game of the second set, a body blow which pretty much bled the remnants of resistance from him.
Cilicâ€™s easy firepower with ball in hand far-outstripped that of his 24-year-old opponent, a player known for speed and resilience and who came into the final on the back of only 30 aces. He managed two on Monday night.
Nishikori had also racked up way more pre-final court time â€“ 16 hours 26 minutes to Cilicâ€™s 14 hours 49 minutes â€“ and the two back-to-back five-setters he survived to beat Milos Raonic and Stanislas Wawrinka plainly left him drained, not to mention the nervous energy flooding through his body on the biggest night of his career.
The championship has its third new champion in six years, after Juan Martin del Potro in 2009 and Murray two years ago. Will either of those break into the upper echelons again? More than likely but now they have for company as legitimate rivals Nishikori and Cilic, who move alongside Grigor Dimitrov and Raonic as genuine threats.
As a measure of the change in the game, consider this: the final was the first between debutants in a decider since Pat Rafter beat Greg Rusedski 17 years ago. The last player outside the top 10 to win a major was the 44th ranked GastÃ³n Gaudio at Roland Garros in 2004, just as Federer was establishing his regal presence and Rafael Nadal (absent injured) was snapping at his elegant heels.
Either or both of the finalists, of course, might find the pressure of emerging atthis level as difficult as Wawrinka has done since beating Nadal in Melbourne this year â€“ or they could blossom at just the right point of the development, in theirmid-twenties as their slightly older betters come to terms with the new challenges.
It was not the final anyone had predicted but it was one people eventually accepted as inevitable, even if they rolled up slowly to fill maybe four-fifths of the available seats.
They played under grey skies on a mild Monday evening of 70-plus Fahrenheit, unlike Saturday when a 15-mile-an-hour breeze from the Atlantic caught in transit then dumped on the tennis, swirling at angles around Arthur Ashe court.
There were no storms last night. Even the weather was not interested.
But by the end everyone in tennis was taking notice. It felt very much like a significant turning point in the modern game. – The Independent