US Open final 2014: Kei Nishikori takes on Marin Cilic at Flushing Meadows
Last Updated: 08/09/14 7:07pm
In the unlikeliest final in years, Kei Nishikori will take on fellow first-timer Marin Cilic for a place in the grand slam history books at the US Open on Monday night.
Nishikori, whose previous best run at a slam event had been a quarter-final at the 2012 Australian Open, became the first Asian man to make a major final after upsetting top-ranked Novak Djokovic 6-4 1-6 7-6 (7-4) 6-3 in the hot and humid New York conditions on Saturday afternoon.
His victory over the Serb, his second in three career meetings, was all the more remarkable as it followed a five-set quarter-final triumph over fifth seed Milos Raonic and another five-set, four and a quarter-hour marathon against third-seeded Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka
Nishikori's success comes despite him having to sit out the Toronto and Cincinnati Masters on the eve of the tournament to have a cyst removed from his toe, a painful problem which almost forced him to skip Flushing Meadows.
Meanwhile, Cilic, who 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, produced the performance of his life to rout 17-time grand slam champion Roger Federer 6-3 6-4 6-4 in under two hours.
It's the final that no-one predicted and the championship match will be the first not to feature the 'Big Four' of Djokovic, Federer, Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray since Australia in 2005 when Marat Safin beat Lleyton Hewitt.
It will also be the first in New York with two debutants since Pat Rafter defeated Greg Rusedski in 1997. No wonder Nishikori is still pinching himself.
"I didn't even know if I should come to New York, so I wasn't expecting anything," said the 24-year-old, who has won two ATP titles on hard court in Memphis and Barcelona clay already this year.
"But after playing my first match and second match, I got more confidence in my foot and there was no pain. My tennis was there already. I may have to rest for three weeks before every grand slam."
Nishikori's talent has never been in doubt and he may well have made the breakthrough earlier but for physical fragility that held him back.
There has been no doubting the 10th-ranked Nishikori's strength this fortnight, though, with back-to-back five-setters preceding the Djokovic match.
If form is any guide, then Nishikori should race away with the title as he boasts a 5-2 head-to-head record over the 25-year-old Croat, including both meetings this year, in Brisbane and Barcelona.
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, just one of many players who sharpened his skills at the Bollettieri academy in Florida.
Playing in his 28th grand slam event, Cilic, however, wondered if his time in the biggest spotlight would ever come.
Coached by 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, Cilic used his enforced time off last year to work on his game, improving his serve and attacking game.
Now the 14th seed is determined to make the most of the occasion and become the lowest-ranked player to win the US Open since Pete Sampras in 2002.
Cilic believes the final will come down to a tactical duel as both players aim to become a part of history and join Stan Wawrinka, Nadal and Djokovic on the list of major winners this year.
"It's going to be a special day for both of us," said 25-year-old. "It's an opportunity for both of us to win a grand slam, to be a part of history. There's going to be definitely huge emotions on the court.
"We played a couple of times already here at the US Open. Both of those matches were extremely tough and under very difficult conditions.
"We have both different game styles. 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 rhythm and to try to serve well."
Ivanisevic is certainly not surprised that Cilic has made it to a grand slam final.
"The last three years, I told him I always believed he's a guy who should be in the top five, but he needed to step up, to be aggressive, because against these guys, you cannot stay back. You have to be brave, to take a risk.
"Everything is paying off slowly because he really has worked hard but this is amazing. It was perfection. You can't play better than he played."
Monday's final also offers up a contrasting clash of styles between the 5ft 10in, 10 stone seven pound Nishikori and the bigger, heavier 6ft 6in, 12 stone 10 pound 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
Five-time champion Federer said of the two finalists: "I'm more surprised with Cilic. He's been around for longer, but he's really been able to make a nice transition in the last few years in his game.
"Whereas with Kei, I always thought he was an unbelievable talent way back when I played with him for the first time when he was 17.
"He's beaten myself twice already, other top guys. He was destroying Rafa in the finals of Madrid. He's shown what he can do, and that's why with Kei I'm not surprised, really.
"I think it's exciting for the game to have different faces from time to time. It's big for Croatia and big for Japan.
"Everybody who gets to this stage of this kind of a competition deserves to be there because they have put in the work and they hoped for the break, and this is it for both of them. I hope they can play a good final."