US Open: The Day Tennis Changed—Nishikori Downs Djokovic, Cilic Stuns Federer

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By Bill Simons and John Huston

The new is always hard to deal with.

It just doesn’t feel right.

What comfort is there in the unknown domain, such uncharted territory?

And at this US Open, it is a new day, the feeling odd. The middle didn’t hold. Tennis’ Big Four have been vanquished.

Rafa Nadal, his wrist injured, didn’t even appear. Too often this man’s great career has been hampered by injuries—think Mickey Mantle.

Andy Murray—the Gold Medal Olympian, 2013 Wimbledon champion, and 2011 winner here—could not sustain his strong play, falling to Novak Djokovic. And today, Djokovic seemed off, almost lethargic, as he lost “The Battle of the Uniqlo Brand” to Japan’s rising son, Kei Nishikori, the first man from his nation to reach a Slam final.

And then came the shocker, the moment of acceptance and realization.

Roger Federer is a tennis mortal. We know this—we saw him fall agonizingly short in the fifth set this July at Wimbledon.

But then we forgot.

Federer went into the US Open fresh from a title win. After his amazing comeback from two sets down against Gael Monfils under the Ashe lights, we just knew he would be destiny’s darling. Certainly the man who could father two sets of twins could tweak tennis mortality.

We presumed that Federer would deliver the ultimate feel-good tale. This would be Roger’s Open, his 18th Slam. It was still Saturday, but with his nemesis Djokovic gone from the picture, he was ready to place the cherry atop his more-than-delicious Slam sundae. The port was in sight. He’d only have to beat the No. 14 seed, Marin Cilic, who he’d never lost to in five meetings (including one less than a month ago) and Nishikori, who’d be playing his first Slam final.

But Cilic is a man on a mission. He’s from Croatia, whose neighbor, Serbia, has claimed a lion’s share of tennis headlines. And he is coming back from what he considers a most unjust four-month drug suspension. Against Federer, he started out on a roll and stayed there, unleashing a powerhouse performance which silenced Michael Jordan and 23,000 others. Sealed with a trio of aces in the final game, it was the definition of stunning.

Cilic’s coach Goran Ivanisevic agreed. Moments after the stunning 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 beatdown, the legendary Wimbledon champ talked with IT’s Lucia Hoffman. “You saw everything,” he said, near tears. “When you give lessons of tennis to Roger Federer, it means you are amazing. That’s too good.”

Marin Cilic was now The Man Who Taught God a Lesson.

A quick lesson—lasting only one hour and 45 minutes, the match was over before the Fed-loving New York crowd could even turn it into a fight.

For years, thanks to the Big Four’s dominance, men’s tennis has been telling some familiar if well-loved tales, adding new chapters along the way: the evolving sagas of Roger, Rafa, Novak, and Andy have been the story of the modern game.

That is, until today, September 6, 2014, the day tennis changed.