NEW YORK – Kei Nishikori came up short in his bid to become the first Asian man to win a Grand Slam title, losing in straight sets to Marin Cilic in the U.S. Open final on Monday.
Tenth-seeded Nishikori fell 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 to his Croatian opponent, who served up 17 aces to just two from Nishikori.
“(Cilic) was playing really well today,” Nishikori said. “I couldn’t play my tennis.
“I was a little bit tight and nervous, playing in my first (Grand Slam) final. I was trying to concentrate, but it wasn’t enough, I guess. I couldn’t fight one more match.”
Nishikori got off to a shaky start against the 14th-seeded Cilic. Though he saw a break opportunity in the first game after Cilic missed on two consecutive forehands, he failed to convert as the Croatian powered a crosscourt winner and prevailed in the first deuce.
Cilic went on to break Nishikori in the sixth game and serve out for an early advantage, wrapping up the set in just 33 minutes.
Nishikori could not find any answers in the second set as the 198-cm Cilic continued to overpower him. Facing triple break point in the third game, Nishikori scrapped out three straight points, ending with a crafty drop shot from the baseline, but ultimately lost the game to go down an early break.
He traded breaks with his opponent late in the set, but could not budge the big-serving Cilic who secured a two sets to love lead.
The third and final set kicked off with three straight aces from Cilic as his dominant form continued. Nishikori lost serve in the fourth game when his backhand at 30-40 missed wide, again dropping an early break he would never make up.
Nishikori’s last credible threat came at 4-2, but he failed to convert on double break point and Cilic sent the game to deuce with yet another ace. Though Nishikori created a break chance by winning the first point, his forehand shot in the crucial second point clipped the top of the net, and like so much on this cool, breezy evening, did not go Nishikori’s way.
Cilic won the game to maintain his advantage, and two games later sealed the championship victory with a backhand winner at the 1-hour, 53-minute mark.
“Overall with the last three or four players that I played against I had a losing record,” said Cilic, who had lost five of seven meetings with Nishikori prior to Monday’s final. “But you never know when you come on the court. You can’t be stuck with your own tactics. If it’s working well, of course — but if not, you have to be open.
“I just felt if I played right, I’m going to have a good chance. Because even (the) matches I have lost to Kei were extremely close.”
In their previous two matches at the U.S. Open, Nishikori won a five-setter in the second round in 2010, while Cilic came out on top in four sets when they met in the third round in 2012.
“(It is) really tough to get confidence from today’s match,” Nishikori said. “I had so many unforced errors that I usually don’t have. But (Cilic) served great and (was) very aggressive with both his forehand and backhand.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get the trophy today, but I’m really happy to make it to my first (Grand Slam) final,” Nishikori said of his role in the first major final since the 2005 Australian Open not to feature any of the “Big Four” of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer or Andy Murray.
Despite losing out in the final, Nishikori has reached No. 8 in the world rankings, the highest spot ever attained by a Japanese man.
He started the year at world No. 17, moving up to No. 12 after successfully defending his title in Memphis in February and capturing his first career clay-court title at the Barcelona Open in April. The following month, Nishikori became the first Japanese male player to break into the top 10 when he reached No. 9 after his run to the Madrid Open final.
Throughout the year, Nishikori has consistently credited his newest coach, 1989 French Open champion Michael Chang, for improving his game and helping him to play aggressive tennis.
Nishikori also said it was Chang who advised him to play in the year’s final Grand Slam when his participation had been in doubt due to injury. The 24-year-old missed nearly a month of competitive tennis due to a cyst that was removed from his right big toe on Aug. 4.
Having resumed on-court training only a week prior to his first-round match, Nishikori needed every ounce of fortitude to reach the final round in a championship bid reminiscent of his mentor Chang’s famed on-court toughness.
While the 25-year-old Cilic had been efficient in advancing to Monday’s final, mowing down Federer and Tomas Berdych in straight sets in the semis and quarterfinals, respectively, Nishikori had to endure back-to-back five-setters in sweltering New York heat. He needed more than four hours each in the round of 16 and quarters to defeat Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka, respectively, and four sets to eliminate world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
Nishikori’s historic run made him the first Japanese man to reach the U.S. Open semifinals since Ichiya Kumagai in 1918, and his win over Djokovic marked the first time an Asian man ever advanced to a Grand Slam singles final.
The Shimane native’s previous best finish at the U.S. Open had come in his 2008 debut, when he reached the round of 16 by upsetting then world No. 4 David Ferrer of Spain.