Twelve months ago, Marin Cilic watched the US Open at home, his career in limbo as lawyers argued the rights and wrongs of his positive drugs test earlier in the year. Today, the 25-year-old from Croatia faces the biggest match of his life when he meets Japan’s Kei Nishikori in one of the most unlikely Grand Slam finals of recent times.
When Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, the world No 1 and No 3 respectively, reached the last four here, most observers expected them to go on and stage a repeat of their Wimbledon final. On Saturday, however, Djokovic wilted in the brutal New York heat against Nishikori, while Federer was swept aside by a barrage of attacking play from Cilic.
The first Grand Slam final for nine years not to feature Federer, Djokovic or Rafael Nadal, will instead be contested by two players who had never previously made it this far in one of the year’s big four events. Nishikori, 24, and Cilic, 25, are not exactly youngsters, but their progress represents a further changing of the guard after Ernests Gulbis, Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic all reached Grand Slam semi-finals earlier in the summer.
Nishikori and Cilic, who are ranked No 11 and No 16 in the world respectively, are both coached by former Grand Slam champions who have played a key part in their success over the last year. Michael Chang has added belief and a hard competitive edge to Nishikori’s outstanding shot-making ability, while Goran Ivanisevic has turned Cilic, his fellow countryman, from a gentle giant into an imposing figure capable of blasting the very best players off the court with his big game.
Cilic broke into the world’s top 10 four years ago on the back of his run to the semi-finals of the Australian Open, but his game appeared to have reached a plateau even before last year’s drug controversy, when he testified positive for a banned stimulant but eventually avoided a lengthy ban after arguing that he had ingested the drug unintentionally through taking a glucose tablet.
Ivanisevic has known Cilic since he was 14 and even before he became his coach last year, had repeatedly told him that he should change his game to take full advantage of his 6ft 6in frame.
“I told him you have to play aggressive, you have to step up,” Ivanisevic said here on Saturday night, in the wake of Cilic’s victory over Federer. “He went backwards. In the last three years he didn’t improve. So I told him: ‘This has to change and it’s very simple. Are you going to go in front, are you going to take your chances, are you going to play aggressive? Because you are 1.98m tall and you have to use your weapons. Or you don’t need me.’
“In Rome [in May this year] we had this big talk and I told him: ‘This is your time. Now you have to step up. Now you have to show me that you understand what I am telling you, that you believe in that game.’ He is starting to believe. He started already at the French Open. I saw at Wimbledon that he was believing and now here, this is really just paying off.”
Nishikori has beaten Cilic in both their previous matches this year, though Ivanisevic insists his man is a “completely different” player since their last meeting on clay in Barcelona. “Nishikori is a tough guy, one of the best hitters in the game, quick, on both sides,” Ivanisevic said. “He’s not scared to come to the net or to hit. When you can beat Djokovic like that it’s very impressive, so Marin will have to serve well, be aggressive. If Nishikori makes him run again, it’s not good.”
Cilic, who said he had played the best tennis of his life to beat Federer, was inspired earlier this year by Stan Wawrinka’s victory at the Australian Open, where the Swiss broke the stranglehold that the “Big Four” (Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Andy Murray) had on the biggest prizes.
“Wawrinka opened the doors for us,” Cilic said. “I think most of the guys now have bigger belief that they can do it in the Grand Slams. Just over here as well – Kei beat Wawrinka, Novak and Milos. He has played an amazing tournament. I think it’s going to be extremely interesting for the next several Grand Slams for sure.”
Both Chang and Ivanisevic have enjoyed being back among their contemporaries, so many of whom are now coaching top players. Just as the underdogs won their semi-finals, so the coaches with the fewest Grand Slam titles emerged triumphant. Chang and Ivanisevic each won one Grand Slam title, whereas Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, the coaches of Djokovic and Federer respectively, won six each.
Chang said: “Stefan said to me the other day: ‘You’re watching from the sidelines but it looks like you are playing.’ The intensity is there but it is hard not to get excited and not be passionate.”