Some 36 hours later, it’s still just as hard to digest the fact that Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic are actually playing for a Grand Slam title on Monday. Let’s be honest, had this been a first round matchup at another event few would even have cared, now it’s a final for a Grand Slam title. Amazing.
Sticker shock aside, credit to both players. I’ve long tabbed Nishikori as a future force on the tour provided his frail body allowed him to actually play on the tour. And so far this fortnight it has. Playing what I call a hybrid Ferrer/Davydenko game, he’s constantly on the attack and smart enough to play defense when he needs to. What he lacks in size – he’s just 5’10” – he makes up for in speed and aggressiveness. Oh, if only he were a few inches taller.
At 6-foot-6, Cilic is more than a few inches taller. But the Croat has been a bit of an enigma. Despite his size, he’s not known as a power player. Like a Tomas Berdych, just without that so-called “easy power”. Cilic is always a dangerous threat but never one who actually follows through. He wins titles in places like Zagreb, Umag and Chennai. And since arriving onto the scene in 2007, he still hasn’t made a Masters 1000 semifinal, yet here he is playing for one of the biggest prizes in the sport and on the cusp of what would be a life-altering victory.
And after momentous wins on Saturday, both guys should be fresh and confident heading into their final showdown. Nishikori leads 5-2 having won the last three including two this year. They have played at the US Open before splitting two meetings. So Kei has the decided head-to-head edge there.
But Cilic is a different player under former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic. Goran’s finally forcing Marin to make use of that lanky frame to go after the serve more and to dictate with those solid groundstrokes. And after consecutive wins over Gilles Simon, Tomas Berdych and Roger Federer, it’s clearly working.
Nishikori has also tapped the past. Michael Chang has honed Kei’s game and strengthened his mental resolve – Kei would never have even served underhanded to Lendl because he would have retired long before getting to that point! Now after consecutive five setters and a stunning win over Novak Djokovic in the searing heat, Kei is not just tough but strong.
So the final is set.
On the surface, it’s easy to take Cilic’s power – his serve, he forehand – and size over Nishikori. But power doesn’t always win out. Just ask Milos Raonic. Armed with one of the greatest serves the sport has ever scene, he tried to blow the Japanese off the court but couldn’t. And few hit it harder off the ground than Stan Wawrinka, yet the Swiss also failed.
And I still go back to that Madrid match when Kei had Rafael Nadal in a hammerlock on his home soil. Now he beats Novak Djokovic on his very best surface. That’s quite remarkable in every way. Yes, Cilic blasted Federer at a tournament he had won five times, but Kei’s effort was better. And that combined with his health and head-to-head record over the Croat make him the choice for me.
However this season has been one hell of ride, so it would only be fitting to see things go exactly the other way. But that happened on Saturday, right? So…
The pick: Nishikori in 5
CBS will have live coverage of the US Open men’s final at 5pm ET. Yes, it’s Nishikori vs. Cilic. Believe it.
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Nishikori, 3 of Top 10, Cilic, Kyrgios at ATP Tokyo; Preview