In one of the most upsetting semifinal days in Grand Slam history the top two tournament favorites and former champions Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer were both stunned by Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic, respectively.
Having watching both matches and most if the tournament, it’s hard to say which result was the bigger surprise. Djokovic had been suspect entering the US Open but he seemed to turn things around nicely in the early rounds. Federer was lucky to still be around after his Houdini act against Gael Monfils.
But Djokovic seemed to be playing more solid. And with Nishikori having played a lot of tennis coming into the final, I thought the heat and fatigue would get to him. But it looked like it got to Djokovic who just couldn’t muster any consistent threat in a 6-4, 1-6, 7-6(4), 6-3 loss to the No. 10 seed.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” said Nishikori told CBS. “I was a little bit tight, especially since it was my first semi-final in a Grand Slam. It’s just an amazing, amazing feeling, beating the No. 1 player. I’m so happy.”
Djokovic admitted afterward that it wasn’t the weather, it wasn’t necessarily Nishikori, it was that same unexplained issue he had over the summer.
“Other than that second set my game today was not even close to what I wanted it to be,” Djokovic said. “A lot of unforced errors, a lot of short balls. Just wasn’t myself.
“It was not easy to play in these conditions, but also he had more hours spent on the court. So it’s no excuse,” he added. “He played some great tennis. I congratulate him for the effort. He was the better player today.”
After dropping the first set, Djokovic stormed out to the second set but any sense of control or ease evaporated in the escalating heat when he fell behind a break in the third. Nishikori, though, failed to close it out at 5-4 but managed to seal it in the breaker.
In the fourth it looked like Djokovic was done for. And he was. The fight in him was gone as Nishikori quickly broke and never looked back.
“I just wasn’t managing to go through the ball in the court,” said Djokovic who has just one US Open title to his name. “I wasn’t in the balance. Unforced errors. Even when the ball gets back to his part of the court it’s pretty short; he takes advantage of it. On the other side I didn’t. That’s it.”
Credit to Nishikori who after marathon wins over Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka, showed little issues with fatigue. The 24-year-old was offensive from the start, slapping that backhand and ripping the forehand and as Novak said, he deserved the win. He was the better player.
It was just stunning to see him pull that off.
In the second semi, the 6-foot-6 Cilic did much of the same, simply blasting Federer off the court 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 in a largely one-sided match. Federer had an early break in the third but promptly gave it back to the Croatian who was playing some of the best tennis of his career.
“It’s just an amazing day for me,” Cilic told the crowd. “I feel amazing. To be able to play like this, I never dreamed of [it], and I think today was the best performance of my career.
“I think [Monday]’s going to be a sensational day for both of us. I’m extremely happy to be in the final for the first time in my career, and I’m just going to enjoy, be happy and try to win.”
For Cilic it’s quite the redemption for someone who was off the tour a year ago due to a suspension. But he’s always been a guy with the talent to become Grand Slam champion and now on Monday he’ll face Nishikori. The meeting marks the first Slam final between two first-time finalists since the 2005 French Open when Rafael Nadal beat Mariano Puerta. And the first at the US Open since Patrick Rafter took out Greg Rusedski in 1997.
As for Federer, what a missed chance. And you have to think he will never get a better chance ever again at No. 18 and a shot at finishing a year No. 1. That top spot is still uncertain thanks to Djokovic’s loss, but there’s a guy named Rafael Nadal in Mallorca who has to be pretty delighted by the results of the day.
After years and years of Big Four domination, I’m not ready to declare the Golden Era over, but we are close. Very, very close.
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