NEW YORK – Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic set up a shock U.S. Open final Saturday as Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, with 24 Grand Slams between them, were dumped out in one sensational afternoon.
Nishikori, the 10th seed, became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam final when he swept past seven-time major winner and world No. 1 Djokovic 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3 despite on-court temperatures of almost 40 C.
Nishikori, the first Japanese man since 1918 to reach the semifinals in New York, goes on to face Croatian 14th seed Cilic in Monday’s championship match after he also reached a maiden Grand Slam final by beating five-time New York winner Federer 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
It will be the first major final that has not featured one of the big three of Djokovic, Federer or Rafael Nadal since the Australian Open final in 2005 when Marat Safin defeated Lleyton Hewitt.
The 27-year-old Djokovic was the 2011 champion in New York. He was playing in his eighth successive U.S. Open semifinal and bidding for a sixth final, his 15th overall at the majors.
In contrast, 24-year-old Nishikori’s best effort had been a run to the quarterfinals of the 2012 Australian Open.
“I was a little bit tight especially as it was my first semifinal in a Grand Slam but it’s just an amazing feeling to beat the No. 1 player,” said Nishikori.
“It was tough conditions, it was a little heavy and humid but I guess I love to play long matches.”
Djokovic, playing in his 17th semifinal of the last 18 Grand Slam events, admitted Nishikori was the better player.
“He played some great tennis. I congratulate him for the effort. He was the better player today,” said the Serb.
Despite playing back-to-back five-setters over more than eight hours to get to the semifinal, Nishikori wrapped up the first set in 39 minutes.
Djokovic, shrugged off his lethargy, breaking in the fourth and sixth games on his way to levelling the semifinal with a sixth ace securing the second set.
“He started to play much better,” Nishikori said. “He played more consistent and a little more aggressive (tennis), sending me side to side.
“It was really tough after losing the second set. I tried to forget about the first and second sets and concentrate (on the present).”
In a tight third set that lasted more than an hour, Nishikori battled to remain on-serve, staring down seven deuces to hold in the third game. Late in the set, he created his only break chance with a brilliant backhand passing shot, and converted with a forehand winner to take a 5-3 lead.
Though he would drop his next service game, the Shimane native held on to triumph in the tiebreaker and go ahead two sets to one.
In the decisive fourth set, Nishikori broke his opponent in the first game and fended off triple break point in the second game to keep his advantage.
At 5-3, Nishikori set up double match point with a backhand winner off Djokovic’s serve. He secured the match two points later as his opponent’s forehand sailed long, just minutes before a rainstorm that delayed the following semifinal match at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“He’s been around for the last couple of years (and has had) a lot of success,” stated Djokovic. “But playing (in the) finals of a Grand Slam and now fighting for the title is definitely something different. He has gotten to another level.”
Nishikori has now prevailed in two of his three career meetings against Djokovic, and with this win denying the 2011 U.S. Open champion his bid to reach the final for five consecutive years.
The 24-year-old Nishikori, who made history as the first Japanese man to break into the world’s top ten when he reached No. 9 in May, will move up to at least No. 8 in the rankings regardless of the outcome of the final.
“I’m very happy to make history again (as the first Japanese player) in the final,” Nishikori said. “I hope I can win and make another (record).”
Cilic, who missed the 2013 U.S. Open as he sat out a doping ban, overwhelmed 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer with 13 aces and 43 winners.
The second seeded Swiss, the champion between 2005 and 2008, was bidding at 33 to become the oldest winner of a Grand Slam title in more than 40 years and vying to reach a seventh final in New York.
Instead, he was outplayed by the 25-year-old Cilic, ranked 16th in the world, whose only prior appearance in a major semifinal was at the 2010 Australian Open.
Federer had come from two sets to love down and saved two match points in his quarterfinal win over Gael Monfils, but there would be no astounding escape this time.
“To be able to play like this, I never dreamed of,” said Cilic. “I think today was just the best performance ever in my career.”
He’s the first Croatian to reach a Grand Slam final since Goran Ivanisevic, now Cilic’s coach, won Wimbledon in 2001.
Federer said he wasn’t affected by his five-set marathon against Monfils.
“I was feeling fine. I just think if I could have stayed longer with him in the first set, I felt like there was a proper match going on,” said the Swiss.
“But I think him playing with the lead he played with — no fear and just full-out confidence, which clearly everybody at this point sort of has in the semis of a slam.
“I think Marin played great. I maybe didn’t have my best day, but I think that was pretty much it in a nutshell.”
Friends to clash in final
New York — Back in May, in the aftermath of early losses for both at the French Open, good friends Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki — who also was about a week removed from the end of her engagement to golf’s Rory McIlroy — flew from Paris to Miami and hung out.
They went to the beach, to a basketball playoff game — and put photos of the good times on social media.
“Serena is a fun girl. She’s so nice to hang out with. Always makes me laugh and makes everyone around her laugh,” Wozniacki said. “Definitely a very inspiring person to be around.”
A few months later, here Williams and Wozniacki are, back at the top of their tennis games and back together, facing one another Sunday for the U.S. Open championship.
On Saturday night, Wozniacki re-posted a photo from the night the Miami Heat clinched the NBA’s Eastern Conference championship, showing her and Williams wearing caps that read, “The Finals.” Wozniacki wrote on Twitter: “The hat says it all ohh yeah!! . . . can’t wait!!”
So when they were palling around in Florida, did they discuss the idea of turning their seasons around?
“No. Not at all. Not even once,” said Williams, who is bidding for Grand Slam trophy No. 18, and U.S. Open title No. 6, including three in a row. “We never talk tennis so much, since we spend so much of our life on the court. Same with me and (older sister) Venus. Last thing on our minds is tennis. If anything, it’s to notthink about a forehand or a backhand.”
They did chat right before play began at Flushing Meadows, noting that the draw placed the top-seeded Williams and 10th-seeded Wozniacki on opposite sides of the bracket.