Breakthrough: Cilic Reflects On Beating Federer, Nishikori On Path To US Open Title
Editor's Note: ATPTour.com is resurfacing features to bring fans closer to their favourite players during the current suspension in tournament play. This story was originally published on 24 August 2019.
Sensing how such a stadium would bring out the best in him, “I told [Goran], ‘You can’t play bad over here’,” Cilic told ATPTour.com. “[My team] was mocking me and just joking and saying to me, ‘We’ll see when you come to play on the court’.”
Little did the Croat know that a fortnight later, he’d be lifting his first Grand Slam trophy. Cilic didn’t just win the tournament, though. The No. 14 seed did so emphatically, claiming each of his final three matches in straight sets, defeating players against whom he had previously owned a combined 5-15 FedEx ATP Head2Head record.
“First of all, I can’t believe that it’s already been five years. Time flies when you’re having fun and when you are on the Tour chasing your dreams,” Cilic said. “Winning the Open was a dream come true… I had my first match on Arthur Ashe Stadium [in the quarter-finals against Tomas Berdych] and played in the form of my life. Beat Berdych, beat Roger in the semis and Kei in the final and just had an incredible time and just enjoyed myself on the court, played tremendously well and just enjoyed every single moment.”
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray had competed in every Grand Slam final since the 2005 Australian Open. And it appeared that streak would continue with Federer and Djokovic overwhelming favourites in the semi-finals against Cilic and Nishikori, respectively.
But shockwaves were sent through the tennis world when Nishikori opened the day by defeating the Serbian superstar, who had defeated Andy Murray the round before. A third-set tie-break proved crucial, as Djokovic won three more points overall in the match.
“It was definitely an incredible win by Kei to beat Novak in the semis and Novak up until that point, he was having a great season and he was the big favourite to go through. But it was an incredibly hot day, it was very humid,” Cilic said. “Of course we all watched in the locker rooms. But it didn’t play too much in my mind because up until that point I had never beaten Roger. I had lost to him five times up until that point and just kept myself in the moment, kept composed. I felt that I was playing great and just wanted to be relaxed, enjoy when I went on the court and that’s the way it was.”
Watch A Cilic Interview From The 2014 US Open
That wasn’t the first match Cilic played well during the tournament, either. The Croat had gathered momentum. In the third round, he gathered steam against a game Kevin Anderson. And then facing a player whom he had never previously beaten in Gilles Simon, Cilic found a way to advance after four hours and 13 minutes.
Then, Cilic found what some may call “lights-out tennis”. He had only won three of eight previous FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings against Tomas Berdych, who was World No. 7 at the time, but Cilic cruised 6-2, 6-4, 7-6(4).
Cilic’s match against Federer was not his first Grand Slam semi-final — that came at the 2010 Australian Open —nor was it his first match inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. But walking out onto the court, with the buzz of the Djokovic upset still reverberating through the more than 23,000 seats in the crowd, it was clearly a special moment.
“I think it gives you that great adrenaline, what we are always searching for in tennis. It’s just an electrifying atmosphere with the whole stadium screaming and enjoying tennis, loving the game, and giving us great pleasure to play,” Cilic said. “When you are there battling it out, you definitely feel appreciated by all the people and you just try to play the best you can and when you are pumped with adrenaline, I think the best tennis comes out of you.”
Many times, that environment could make a player nervous, and perhaps force them into a slow start. In other cases, loud support for an opponent can make even some of the ATP Tour’s best tight as they try to close out a match. But what was impressive about Cilic’s performance against Federer wasn’t necessarily just his level — he won 87 per cent of his first-serve points to Federer’s 69 — but how Cilic maintained his level with no true dip, even with the New York crowd attempting to rally its five-time champion.
“[It was] not easy [to close it out], I have to say. It was definitely tough, winning the first set and then being up early with a break in the second set and slowly the crowd was getting into it, pushing Roger, giving him some extra wind at his back just to catch me, to get that break back,” Cilic said. “But I kept cool, I was extremely composed. I felt in a way just in my zone, just really relaxed and I knew what I had to do.
“I played instinctively, didn’t panic, served tremendously well. That was one of the key factors actually in my whole game that allowed me to be a little bit more free when swinging from the back. Just everything clicked incredibly well on the court.”
Three aces to begin the match’s final game certainly helped to settle any nerves. And Cilic crushed a backhand winner down the line into the open court to clinch his triumph. Then he froze, thrust his arms up diagonally towards his camp, with a smile on his face
“I just remember watching the match and going, ‘Damn, this guy is good’,” Cilic’s current coach, Wayne Ferreira, told ATPTour.com. “He was serving and hitting groundstrokes [so well]. He literally beat the [heck] out of Roger. It reminded me of the Marat Safin-Pete Sampras final where Safin came out and just absolutely drilled him. Sampras walked in afterwards and was like, ‘Wow’. I think it was the same, similar to where Roger would have felt afterwards that there was just nothing he can do. It was a very impressive semi-final.”
The tournament wasn’t over yet, though. Cilic had one more hurdle to leap over, and that was Nishikori, himself carrying plenty of momentum. But again, nothing could stop Cilic. He found form during the second week of the 2014 US Open that nobody will soon forget.
“I would say up to an hour and a half, two hours before the final I didn’t feel any nerves. I just felt great. Even the practice, the warm-ups before were just incredibly good and coming onto the court, that hour and a half before the match I started to feel a little bit of the nerves swirling around my stomach and just feeling that moment a bit,” Cilic said. “The few first games I felt just slightly more nervous than usual, but after the first few games everything went away. I just battled it out and played an incredible match. It was a straight-sets win against Kei who had an amazing run as well. It was just incredible to see my name on the screen as a US Open winner.”
Since Cilic, there has not been another first-time Grand Slam champion. But as the Croat readies for a run at his second major title, he will always be able to take confidence knowing that five years ago, he was the last man standing in New York.
“It was just a little bit unreal in a way. Obviously I knew what that result was, winning my first Grand Slam. I played incredibly well. That was the biggest satisfaction of all, knowing I could produce that tennis under those circumstances, under pressure, under big adrenaline and just playing top guys and delivering in those moments and being able to win that trophy, it’s tough to put it into words,” Cilic said. “But I’ve been dreaming of that all my life, working for it since being a kid, just battling it out every single day, trying to push yourself as much as you can. At some point in your career, you start thinking, ‘Is that ever going to happen?’ It was just incredible to win that one and just be among the history of incredible players who have won Grand Slams.”