When Kei Nishikori defeated Novak Djokovic in the first of the US Open men’s singles semi-finals on Saturday night the door opened wide for Switzerland’s Roger Federer to step forth and claim his 18th Grand Slam win. Having been defeated in the final at Wimbledon the stage was set for him to extend his lead over Rafael Nadal, as the most successful men’s singles Grand Slam Champion ever, to four titles. Croatia’s Marin Cilic, however, had other ideas and showed no respect for Federer’s reputation in handing out a straight sets hiding in the second semi.
The unlikely final line up, consisting of 10th seed Nishikori and 14th seed Cilic, was the first time since the 2005 Australian Open that a Grand Slam final had not featured either Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Federer and it could herald a new dawn in men’s singles tennis. In the 39 Grand Slams since that Australian Open of 2005, the winner has only come from outside the ‘big three’ on five occasions- two of those occasions have been in 2014. Indeed, Cilic suggested before his straight sets victory over Japan’s Nishikori that Stan Wawrinka’s victory in the Australian Open earlier this year had inspired him to excel at Flushing Meadows.
So, what makes Cillic’s win different from the other four outsider victories since 2005? In short, the reason that the rest of the tennis world will believe that a new dawn may be coming is the form and fitness of the ‘big three’. Roger Federer has now turned 33, and against Cilic his age really began to show, with the 25 year old looking stronger and faster throughout his straight sets victory. If Federer were to win another Grand Slam he would be the oldest champion since Ken Rosewall won the Australian Open aged 37 in 1972- the game has moved on a lot since then.
Rafael Nadal was a high-profile absentee from the US Open having missed the whole of the American hardcourt season with a wrist injury. After fighting back from a serious knee injury in 2012 Nadal did win the French Open in 2013 and 2014 as well as last year’s US Open, but even with his heart and strength of character he has had to accept that he can’t put a date on a possible return. Andy Murray, who briefly threatened to crash the party with wins at Wimbledon in 2013 and the US Open in 2012, has now dropped out of the top 10 for the first time since 2008 and still seems to be struggling with a back condition that has hampered him since his Wimbledon win. Like Nadal, Murray will be focussing on regaining his fitness ahead of worrying about further Grand Slam wins. Of the ‘old guard’ only Novak Djokovic remains as a real, in-form and credible threat but he can’t be expected to maintain his form and fitness in Grand Slams indefinitely.
Marin Cilic may have only just regained his top ranking of ninth in the world but he looks nailed on to climb higher. The Croatian’s performance in New York was confident and masterful, and belied his limited experience in the latter stages of big tournaments. Fans of tennis betting can be sure that this will not be his last final appearance and, if he keeps working hard under Goran Ivanisevic’s tutelage, he looks certain to add to his haul of Grand Slam wins.