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Marin Cilic fends off Kei Nishikori to win his first Grand Slam title.

Brain Game: Cilic Wins On All Fronts

Brain Game author Craig O’Shannessy breaks down the US Open final between Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori.

Marin Cilic hit double the amount of winners than Kei Nishikori (38 to 19), turning back the clock to the golden age of the big server in winning the US Open singles title Sunday in New York. Cilic dominated Nishikori 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, crushing 17 aces, only losing nine points on his first serve, and controlling the back of the court with outstanding court position that carried him to an emphatic victory.

With Cilic already up a set and a break 6-3, 3-2, he served four aces in a row, with three of them blasting down the middle, to effectively take Nishikori and the crowd out of the contest without a ball being returned. Cilic also started the first game of the third set with three consecutive aces, and eventually won it when Nishikori netted a forehand return off a 120mph serve down the middle at Ad In.

Cilic served 13 of his 17 aces down the middle (eight Deuce / five Ad) as well as one out wide in the Deuce court and three out wide in the Ad. This was a huge difference-maker in the match for the Croatian as he was able to gather plenty of free points while Nishikori was battling with his game, making many more errors from the back of the court than we were used to seeing from him in his run to the final.

Cilic relished having 40 per cent (33/83) of his serves unreturned for the match while Nishikori struggled with just over half that at 24 per cent (18/74). Nishikori was only able to win 11 percent (1/9) of his break points, while Cilic was far more efficient, winning 55 per cent (6/11).

The speed of the serve was a massive factor in this critical area. Cilic’s fastest serve for the match was 134mph, and he averaged 124mph on first serves. Nishikori could only manage 118 as his fastest and 108 as an average – 16mph slower than his taller Croatian rival.

Cilic enjoyed a huge 62-45 advantage in shorter points lasting up to four shots, and still held a narrow edge in rallies five to eight shots (18 to 16), and was surprisingly almost twice as good as Nishikori in longer points of nine shots or more, winning 13 to seven. Cilic used powerful, flat groundstrokes and a considerable amount of off-pace slice backhands to keep Nishikori off balance.

Overall, Cilic won 48 baseline points to 42, which robbed Nishikori of the only real advantage he could possibly hope to have in the match. Nishikori hit more forehand winners (14 to 11) but Cilic slightly edged his Japanese opponent with backhand winners (four to two).

Once rallies developed, it was Cilic who dominated with his hard, flat groundstrokes, mainly due to his outstanding court position around the baseline. He is one of the best in the game at moving forward to a short ball, attacking it with his feet as well as his hands. Cilic was able to force 25 groundstroke errors (10 forehand / 15 backhand), while Nishikori was only able to extract 22 forced errors (12 forehand / 10 backhand) from the Croat.

A very telling IBM statistic from the match showed Nishikori contributed 30 unforced errors to Cilic’s 27. If Nishikori could not force more errors, and was looser than Cilic from the back of the court, then he had nowhere to find an advantage on the expansive Arthur Ashe Stadium.    

Cilic broke first in the opening set when Nishikori missed a slice forehand wide on the 17th shot of the rally. Cilic was more patient and displayed more variety at this early stage of the final.

Cilic broke first in the second set on his fourth break point of the 1-1 game when Nishikori netted a first-shot backhand. Cilic lost his serve at 5-2 with a first-shot forehand error after the serve, but broke immediately back with a forehand winner down the line at 5-3, 30/40 to take a commanding two-sets-to-love lead.

Cilic broke again early in the third set with Nishikori serving 1-2, 30/40, at the end of a grueling 23-shot rally, when Nishikori missed a backhand wide. Cilic served the match out at 5-3 with two service winners to start the game and a backhand winner crosscourt to seal it.

It has been a while coming, but Marin Cilic played outstanding tennis on the biggest stage of his life to win his first Grand Slam title.


Craig O'Shannessy uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns and percentages behind the game. Read more at www.braingametennis.com.