US Open: Monday, Monday—Marin Cilic Storms to His First Slam Win

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LIKE HIS BELOVED COACH, CROAT MARIN CILIC CLAIMS HIS FIRST SLAM ON A MONDAY

By Bill Simons

Sometimes it just comes down to numbers.

100: The Bryans get their 100th title, no problemo.

18: Serena wins her 18th Slam, but Federer falls short. Age, a tall Croat, and our heartfelt expectations got in the way.

Now, on the last day of the 2014 US Open, 14 is the number. When Marin Cilic was 14—just a lanky kid—he met and hit with his nation’s idol, Goran Ivanisevic. It was transformative. Maybe it was not as consequential as Arthur Ashe meeting Yannick Noah in the Cameroons. But the moment changed his life.

And 14 was a key year for Kei Nishikori. Without any English, but with plenty of promise, he traveled almost 8000 miles from Japan to the Bollettierri Academy in Florida. His father wanted him to be a world citizen. Fine, but unlike every other populated continent, Asia had never produced a men’s Grand Slam champion, and in this day of galloping giants, the 5’10” Nishikori is, shall we say, diminutive.

Enter Michael Chang. If Goran was the obvious mentor for Cilic, Chang was the go-to guy for Nishikori. After all, if you want to learn about taking advantage of a lack of height and the importance of heart and a relentless fighting spirit, “who you gonna call” but the ’89 French Open champ and former No. 2? Plus, long before Li Na, Chang began to popularize tennis in Asia.

And it worked. Rather suddenly, Nishikori seemed to transform his considerable talents—fabulous backhand, blazing speed, uncanny defense, incredible hand eye co-ordination—into noteworthy wins. He broke into the top 10 for the first time this year, streaking to the finals on clay in Madrid, where he had the world’s best claymeister, Rafa Nadal, on the ropes before a back injury forced him to retire. His career has been stalled by injuries—in fact, he underwent an operation to remove a cyst from his foot just three weeks before the Open.

So, why deal with the hassle of New York? Why not just skip the Open and re-group?

“No way,” advised Chang, ever the battler. Just enter and see what happens—after the first couple of rounds, anything goes. Never mind that last year Nishikori lost his first match here to a qualifier ranked No. 179—this year, Nishikori was one “Special Kei.” His cyst was gone and all systems were go as he defeated Milos Raonic in a five-set epic that ended at 2:26 AM, tying the record for the latest match to finish at the Open. From there, he downed Aussie Open champ Stan Wawrinka in another five-set marathon, after which he beat the best player in the world, Novak Djokovic in four gritty sets. Successive wins over the No. 5, 3 and 1 seeds—that’s sure okay, Kei.

But Cilic’s results weren’t exactly shabby either. He beat Gilles Simon, who had owned him, knocked out fellow big-hitter Tomas Berdych in the quarters, and then came the shocker: up against a fellow named Federer in the semis, he almost made the 33-year-old whiz seem ordinary. Prone to over-thinking in the past, now Cilic was in confident, clutch command of his huge game.

Going into this final—a shoot-out at “The Oh Kei Corral” between the big man from the small, but over-achieving, Euro nation and the small man from the big, but underachieving Pacific nation—it was hard to say who should be favored.

In an arena crowded with Japanese writers, photographers, and fans, Nishikori had a look at a break point in the first game. It proved to be one of his few bright moments on a cloudy afternoon.

Goran Ivanisevic may have been infamous for having three personalities, but his pupil needed just one game plan. Serving with power, often holding at love, as he did against Federer, Cilic ran his overmatched foe from corner to corner, unleashing a Juan Martin del Potro-like arsenal of forehand winners, along with virtually unreturnable serves.

Cilic leaned into backhands and moved with surprising ease, delivering 17 aces, well-timed slices, and one baseline blow after another against a foe who lacked his usual explosiveness and had few—well, make that almost no—answers amidst the onslaught. The Prince of Tennis who was televised on Japan’s WOWOW TV network had very little “pow pow.” After only 70 minutes, Cilic already had a two-set lead.

Still, as the New York sunset went golden, the man from the land of the Rising Sun collected three break points, deep in the third set, to keep his slight hopes alive. But once again, Cilic raised his game. When Nishikori counter-attacked, Marin stepped up his game. An inspired heavyweight—fresher and fighting hard—downed the good, but weathered middleweight. Maybe it was simply that Kei had been on court for so many hours. Even Nishikori’s last stroke—a cross-court backhand—was underwhelming.

And Cilic, at last, was overwhelmed—falling to the court, raising his considerable arms to the sky, and then climbing high to the friends box for a hefty group hug with his team.

Soon Mary Carillo was asking how he did it.

“This is all hard work, especially this year,” responded the good-natured 25-year-old, who returned to the tour in January, after a contested doping-related ban. “This time has brought something special to me, especially Goran. The most important thing he brought … is joy in tennis, always having fun … I played the best tennis ever in my life …Everything I was working for and dreaming [of] came [true] today … This is a big sign that if you’re working hard, things are going to pay off.”

Cilic then told Mary Joe Fernandez, “I was putting a lot of pressure on Kei … Through the rallies … [It’s been an] amazing two weeks for me, especially the last three [straight-set] matches. My mindset was that I would have to do it, otherwise I’ll be in big trouble.

[Goran] brought big knowledge and different small pieces … [My] serve was really important, and especially when playing bigger guys, the belief that I can play aggressively over a five-set match. And the joy, the joy of practice … It’s not been easy. I was working for this for a very long time. The stars crossed. Goran won his Wimbledon on Mondays. Mondays are special probably for Croatians.”

All the while, in a back corridor, a cadre of Japanese reporters bowed as they interviewed a top official of the Japanese Tennis Association, while Inside Tennis had this flash interview with the singular Goran Ivanisevic:

How did Marin do it?

He took advantage. Marin beat him by just pressing, pressing, pushing, pushing—serving well, playing from the back well. He did everything that we talked about tactically before, and Nishikori didn’t have any chance.

What makes Marin such a great champion?

Listen, for him to play a final like this—after a couple of games, he was like a guy who had played 10 Grand Slam finals. That was the key. He was a better player than Nishikori today.

You won Wimbledon on a Monday 13 years ago. How does this compare?

It’s great for this country, Croatia—we have two Grand Slam winners. This is unbelievable, an amazing story.

In your heart, what do you feel right now?

I feel proud of him. He really worked hard, he really deserved it.

Are all three Gorans thrilled?

Everybody. Ten Gorans are thrilled!