The last major tennis tournament of the year is over.
The Davis Cup semifinals begin this Friday, and there are a lot of points to be won (or defended, depending on the player) in the Asian swing and the fall indoor portions of the tennis calendar. Both the WTA and ATP will unfurl their year-ending tour championship events, and the Davis Cup final will put the capper on 2014. Yet, a certain degree of finality always visits the conclusion of the U.S. Open, because it enables the tennis community to size up not just the past fortnight in New York, but the four events which comprise the Grand Slam.
We’ll devote a separate piece to “The Year That Was At The Majors,” but for now, let’s tackle the 10 biggest stories of a highly compelling U.S. Open that easily could have accommodated 20 stories on this list. Precisely because so many important tennis stories flowed from this tournament, you’re going to see multiple players bundled together if there’s a strong shared similarity between (or among) them.
10 – SIMONA HALEP: HALTED
The steady forward progress of Simona Halep was interrupted at this U.S. Open and, on a general level, during the North American hardcourt summer. Halep was reeled in by Maria Sharapova in a close and compelling Cincinnati quarterfinal. She entered New York with some match play, but not too much tread on the tires. She should have been fairly fresh, but she didn’t spill out her talents the way many observers expected in a third-round loss to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Halep took a 5-2 lead in the first set… and then faltered on serve, filling her opponent with belief and changing the emotional complexion of the match. Lucic-Baroni kept smacking winners, and Halep — both territorially and mentally — retreated. The result was a straight-set loss and no second-week hotel reservations after a tremendous set of results at the Australian Open (quarterfinals), Roland Garros (final), and Wimbledon (semifinals).
The item to watch with Halep: She acknowledged after a shaky first-round victory (she needed three sets to beat wild card Danielle Rose Collins) that she was feeling an appreciable degree of pressure at this tournament.
That’s supposed to be Ana Ivanovic’s music at the majors.
At any rate, Halep better get used to being a marked player at the big events. She seems to have the makeup of a champion, and this also seems to be little more than a blip on the radar screen, a non-indicator of what’s to come in her career. She should be fine.
Then again, Ivanovic was supposed to be headed for superstardom after her 2008 French Open title. Do keep an eye on the way Halep handles pressure. Her game requires flowing movement, certainly more than a taller, bigger hitter who can crush the ball to quickly end points. If Halep’s not moving well, chances are she’s tight as a drum and feeling weighed down by that demon called Pressure.
9 – ATP YOUNG(ER) GUNS: BLOWN DOWN
Many tennis fans do not care for the “Young Guns” label when Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic are discussed, because they’re both 23 years old. (Kei Nishikori will turn 25 this December, so he’s not quite at the same point in his career as Dimitrov or Raonic, and is therefore not seen in the same context. More on him later.) Rafael Nadal was winning majors long before that age (just after his 19th birthday, in fact), and Roger Federer had essentially discovered the secret to playing dominant tennis when his 23rd birthday arrived in August of 2004. The age of 23 is not all that young in tennis, so those who sneer at the “Young Guns” nickname have a point.
Yet, let’s also concede that it takes a special talent to construct a winning mentality at age 19 or 21. Those are rare instances; if they were more commonplace, tennis wouldn’t be nearly as hard as it is… and we wouldn’t admire tennis players as much. The sport has become more punishing in the past 10 years for many accumulated reasons you’re most likely aware of. It’s becoming more of a challenge, not less, to win big in tennis on a consistent basis. With all this in mind, Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic have enjoyed substantially — and unquestionably — successful seasons. Relative to where they stood at the beginning of 2014, they’ve dramatically improved their career prospects.
In a way that’s similar to what happened with Halep (while acknowledging that Halep was even better through Wimbledon…), this U.S. Open has given Dimitrov and Raonic a taste of adversity, forcing them to both improve their endurance levels — Dimitrov mentally, Raonic physically. Dimitrov gave off terrible body language in his fourth-round loss to Gael Monfils, while Raonic — much better at maintaining a poker face — was outlasted by an opponent, Kei Nishikori, who was physically suffering for much of that late-night fourth-round match on Monday (and Tuesday morning). Both men made the semifinals of Wimbledon… and couldn’t carry that progress into North American hardcourts. They and their coaches (Roger Rasheed for Dimitrov, Ivan Ljubicic for Raonic) both know what they need to do before the 2015 Australian Open.
8 – FIGHTERS WHO AFFIRMED THEMSELVES:
AZARENKA, WAWRINKA, AND MURRAY
To the victors go the spoils… but to the noble quarterfinalists go some words of deserved praise as well.
Victoria Azarenka, Stan Wawrinka, and Andy Murray all ought to be dissatisfied with quarterfinal showings at majors. In terms of their interior worlds and their expectations for themselves, they should believe that they should be playing for championships. Yet, with Azarenka and Murray trying to find their games and establish the base of fitness from which championship tennis emerges, their quarterfinal results in New York were not that bad at all. The biggest sign of encouragement for both players was that they fought through adverse situations with bodies that weren’t yet whole. Azarenka refused to let scoreboard deficits diminish her signature intensity and competitive drive. Murray showed the hunger that was so noticeably absent from his timid Wimbledon quarterfinal loss to Dimitrov. He pounded his forehand at a level that would have made Ivan Lendl proud. Both players, if fully healthy, should be central figures in the 2015 season. Tennis fans are hoping this will come to pass.
Wawrinka didn’t inhabit the same circumstances as Azarenka and Murray, but he fought through a lot of scratchy patches to make the quarterfinals and very nearly defend his semifinal points from last year at the Open. After his first-round loss at Roland Garros — one in which he folded like a flour tortilla in the third and fourth sets — it was quite legitimate to wonder if Wawrinka was going to remain at the heart of the story of men’s tennis in 2014 and beyond. By making the quarters at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Stan The Man has told the rest of the ATP that he’s here to stay.
Now, he can focus on the Davis Cup semifinals. If he plays well and helps Switzerland make the finals, Wawrinka will get an added taste of pressure-packed tennis deep into the 2014 calendar, leaving him seasoned for 2015 and ready to defend his Australian Open title. This was not a great U.S. Open for Wawrinka, but it should be seen as a good one. His quarterfinal loss to Nishikori was the best ATP match of the tournament, hands down.
7 – THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS:
YOUTHFUL GAINS, VETERAN LOSSES
The women’s tournament at this U.S. Open elevated Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki to the final, and it also put a couple of other veterans — Peng Shuai and Ekaterina Makarova — into the semis. Sara Errani, Azarenka, and Flavia Pennetta made the quarterfinals. Veterans certainly had their day at this tournament in many respects. Yet, very few pundits expected Shuai, Makarova, Errani, or Pennetta to contend for the title. Expectations fall more heavily on the shoulders of players who have a legitimate chance to win, especially if they haven’t tasted major-tournament success in a long time.
When framed within this construct, the U.S. Open undercut the career aspirations of two WTA veterans who had special opportunities in New York… and couldn’t take advantage of them.
Agnieszka Radwanska still has plenty of time in which to engineer a course correction to her career, but after making the 2012 Wimbledon final and then making two quarters and a semi at the majors in 2013, Radwanska took a step back in 2014. She made the Australian Open semifinals but then crashed out early at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Coming to New York, she had the Montreal championship in her trophy case and a favorable draw through the quarterfinals.
Yes, Peng Shuai was an in-form player at this tournament, and it’s simply a fact of life that top players run into inspired opponents at times, as was the case with Radwanska losing to Peng in the second round. Yet, Radwanska’s title in Montreal makes her U.S. Open showing a distinct downer, one she’ll have to cope with if her fall season and her 2015 performance are going to bring better things. Radwanska is 25. Time is not yet an enemy. However, it’s hard to see how she’ll win her first major next year, and before you know it, the clock could be ticking far more urgently than it is now.
The bigger failure at this U.S. Open from a “she coulda been a contender” candidate belongs to Jelena Jankovic. Radwanska, in her quarter, lost. Angelique Kerber, in her section, lost. Sloane Stephens, in her subsection (the first three rounds of the draw), lost. This was a path paved with gold for the 29-year-old, who hadn’t reached a major semifinal since the 2010 French Open, and whose only major final came at the U.S. Open, in 2008. Jankovic had a chance to play Peng Shuai in the quarters and Caroline Wozniacki in the semis, instead of players named Sharapova or Halep.
This was a golden chance. It slipped away.
The player who made that chance evaporate for Jankovic was Belinda Bencic, a 17-year-old Swiss who had taken out Kerber in the third round. Bencic twice broke Jankovic when her opponent — 12 years older — served for the first set. Bencic’s resilience was uncommon, to say the least. It offered a tantalizing glimpse into what could become a highly prosperous career, but as is the case with so many teenagers who burst onto the stage at a major tournament, the best approach is defined by three familiar words: Wait. And. See.
An equally intriguing story at the Open was forged by 21-year-old Serbian Aleksandra Krunic, who — if likened to a baseball pitcher from the recent past — would be considered the Jamie Moyer of tennis. Her best pitch is her change-up, not her fastball. Krunic’s soft shots flustered Petra Kvitova in a third-round upset of the Wimbledon champion, and they bothered Victoria Azarenka in a fourth-round match that was one of the most entertaining and enthralling competitions of the entire tournament, easily in the top five. It is so exciting to see just how much quality depth the WTA Tour is cultivating. Krunic might still need a year in which to fully find herself, but as she and Bencic leave the U.S. Open with heightened confidence, the WTA — especially in 2016 — is poised to offer a ridiculous amount of quality from an expanding roster of athletes.
6 – CICI BELLIS: NOT BECAUSE OF HER FUTURE, BUT BECAUSE OF THE PAST (AND THE NCAA)
The CiCi Bellis story rates as a significant one not because it shows that the Californian is ready for greatness or somehow assured of a big-time career. No, she’s not. Let’s put the brakes on that thought and allow time to run its course.
The story matters because Bellis’s first-round win over Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova recalled a time when tennis didn’t have (substantial) age-based restrictions in place for the number of tournaments a player could play. Jennifer Capriati’s run to the U.S. Open semifinals in 1991, at Bellis’s age of 15, led to some on-court successes, but it also led to a lot of suffering and trauma that, in the bigger picture, are not worth a few trophies here and there. Bellis’ splash in New York shows us how much tennis has grown up. On a different note, it shows why Bellis having to refuse prize money in order to maintain amateur status (and thereby play college tennis) is such an absurd reality. Bellis earned that money, but the NCAA’s dogged defense of an antiquated concept once again stands in the way of basic fairness.
5 – A DIFFERENT “FINAL FOUR”
This U.S. Open will definitely be remembered for its three first-time major semifinalists (two in the women’s field, one in the men’s field) and two first-time finalists (both in the men’s tournament). This isn’t so much a reflection on any one player; the story here is more about new faces reaching the latter stages of majors. It’s been a theme in 2014, a season in which four different women and four different men won at the majors, a very uncommon scenario in modern tennis.
The men went through periods of flux at the very start of the 21st century (2000-2003) and in 2012, but in those five years, either Serena or Venus Williams, plus Jennifer Capriati and Justine Henin, won at least two majors in the same calendar year for the women. Before 2014, the last year in which there were eight different singles champions at the majors, men and women combined, was in 1998. Martina Hingis won the Australian Open; Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario the French; Jana Novotna Wimbledon; and Lindsay Davenport the U.S. Open. For the men, Petr Korda won the Australian; Carlos Moya the French; Pete Sampras Wimbledon; and Patrick Rafter the U.S. Open.
Peng Shuai’s exit from the U.S. Open rates as a huge story in its own right, for reasons pertaining to the rules of tennis and player safety. Yet, for the first five rounds of this seven-round tournament, Peng — at age 28 — registered a special career achievement with laser-focused tennis that demolished a series of overwhelmed opponents, including fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska.
Peng was joined in the semifinals by 26-year-old Ekaterina Makarova, whose solid career was impressively examined by Lindsay Gibbs of The Changeover in this multi-item piece, written after day eight of the tournament (Labor Day, to put an identifier on it). Unlike Nishikori and Cilic, neither Makarova nor Peng was able to win a first U.S. Open semifinal. Yet, the emergence of new faces — not necessarily young ones, however — points to increasing depth in both women’s and men’s tennis.
Some people might not like this unfamiliarity (mostly the casual sports fans in the crowd), but if more players believe they can win, the potential for better major tournaments in all seven rounds increases. That’s not necessarily a healthy reality for the sport. It is, however, a healthy possibility. Let’s see where that possibility takes tennis in 2015 and beyond.
4 – MIRJANA LUCIC-BARONI: SCARRED, BUT NOT DEFEATED
The most genuinely inspiring and deeply poignant story of the U.S. Open was authored by Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, a 1999 Wimbledon semifinalist as a teenager, and a person who has traveled one of the longer, tougher, sadder roads in professional tennis since that point in time. After so many years in the shadows, Lucic-Baroni made the fourth round and earned one of her larger tennis paychecks in quite a while. Take the time to read her story as told by Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times.
Then watch her press conference following her win over Simona Halep in the third round. It was and is (and will remain) one of the foremost highlights of this tournament.
3 – CAROLINE WOZNIACKI: RENEWED, RESOURCEFUL, READY
How to put Caroline Wozniacki’s career resurgence in perspective, as she moves into the top 10 once again and becomes a legitimate contender at the majors? Consider this: In the summer hardcourt season, Wozniacki lost to only one player other than Serena Williams: Camila Giorgi in the round of 16 at New Haven, a tournament in which players are not trying to win so much as they’re trying to get some match play before the U.S. Open. Wozniacki wasn’t beaten in Montreal, Cincinnati, or in New York by anyone other than Serena. She stood up to every other challenge in every other tournament of significance during the summer. That’s how solid she’s become. With fewer moonballs and slightly more purposeful hitting, Wozniacki is a more polished and textured player. If she can carry her 2014 U.S. Open into 2015, she’ll be heard from again in the semifinals and finals of majors.
1 – TIE: SERENA’S SUPREMACY AND CILIC’S CHAMPIONSHIP
You can’t really separate these two stories in terms of significance because they’re both so deeply resonant, albeit for substantially different reasons.
Serena Williams won major title No. 18, sustaining her place atop women’s tennis. Marin Cilic won his first major, capturing a prize many members of the tennis community once expected him to win (in 2009 and 2010)… but had seemingly become unattainable entering 2014. Serena and Cilic won championships from the opposite sides of the tracks. Yet, they both show how mind-bending and compelling this U.S. Open really was.
You can read Attacking The Net’s piece on Serena’s championship here. You can read ATN’s piece on Cilic’s title here. There’s no need to repeat what is said in those two pieces. What can be added to them is as follows:
First, with Serena tying Chris Evert for six U.S. Open titles, it’s worth reminding you that as ATN noted in its U.S. Open preview package (see item No. 6), Evert’s first three U.S. Open titles came in the three years when the tournament was played on green clay, 1975 through 1977. Serena therefore becomes, without question, the most accomplished U.S. Open champion in the hardcourt portion of the tournament’s Open era existence. She has done on hardcourt what Evert did on green clay: Win three U.S. Opens in a row.
Second, it has to be said that while Serena’s 18-4 record in 22 major finals is nothing short of breathtaking, Steffi Graf’s record in major finals is a similarly glistening 22-9 in nine more appearances (31). If Serena and Steffi were in a standings race, Serena would be half a game ahead, but based on a much smaller sample size. Both Chris Evert (18-16) and Martina Navratilova (18-14) made more major finals, and Navratilova played several of those finals against Graf.
By all means, there are strong and compelling reasons to make Serena the GOAT in women’s tennis: She’s the best server in history. Her longevity and staying power are second to none. Without injuries and health scares, she very likely would be sitting near Steffi’s 22 titles right now, in a more physically demanding era of tennis for both genders. True enough.
Yet, if there’s a lingering reason why Steffi (and perhaps Navratilova or Evert) could be viewed as the best female tennis player of all time, it’s that Serena’s latter-period dominance of the WTA Tour has occurred with sister Venus no longer around to oppose her in Wimbledon finals or late-stage U.S. Open matches. This is entirely out of Serena’s control, much as the stabbing of Monica Seles lay outside of Steffi Graf’s control, but the fact remains for purposes of comparison: Neither Serena nor Steffi carried one enduring rival through the whole of their career the way Evert and Navratilova did. These are two of the great what-ifs of women’s tennis history, but they’re real, and they will always hover over this particular conversation.
Does this diminish to any degree what Serena has achieved? No, not at all.
(“THEN WHY BRING IT UP?!”, some fans might ask with great irritation.)
The point to make is that while Serena’s feat stands as tall as the top row of seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the reality of an always-present rivalry or “trivalry” is something that the Open era’s other great WTA champions will have more in their corner. This is not a critique of Serena, then, so much as it’s a note about the circumstances surrounding her.
Had Victoria Azarenka been fitter at this tournament, and had Serena defeated her in yet another gripping three-set match (which could have happened in the semis), the trajectory of this conversation probably would be different. Had Justine Henin not lost her appetite for tennis, this conversation would be different. Had Maria Sharapova remained a force on hardcourt surfaces instead of becoming a clay specialist, this conversation would be different.
It’s not Serena’s fault… but circumstances are what they are.
Now, to Cilic’s championship.
Beyond what was said in ATN’s match review, the enduring story to flow from this entirely unexpected development in New York is that it stood against the course of the past decade of tennis history. You know that Monday’s men’s final was the first ATP major final since January of 2005 without a member of the Holy Trinity of Men’s Tennis: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic.
How does one put his or her mind around that fact? What does it even mean?
It means that 38 majors came and went with at least one “trinitarian” making a final. One of three men, over 38 majors, always went the distance at one of tennis’s biggest tournaments. For 38 straight majors, at least one of the Big Three advanced through six rounds, winning at least 18 sets unless a walkover or retirement was involved. For 38 straight major tournaments, at least one of three men succeeded if the other two failed.
Even now, Djokovic is working on a streak of 22 straight major quarterfinals (2009 French Open)… and that’s still 14 short of Federer’s run of 36, achieved during this same basic timeframe (beginning slightly before January of 2005, in July of 2004 at Wimbledon). Djokovic had also reached 14 straight major semifinals before Stan Wawrinka snapped that streak in this year’s Australian Open quarterfinals. Djokovic’s run of 14 consecutive major semis ended nine short of Federer’s mark of 23, which also began in July of 2004 at Wimbledon. You can see why one of those two men was able to make a final on the occasions when Nadal didn’t.
Speaking of Nadal, the passage of time — and the accumulation of various injuries — underscore this point about the Mallorcan legend: Nadal doesn’t always play, but when he has been able to play in a major, especially over the past five years, Rafa maxes out more than his foremost fabled rivals on clay and… surprise… hardcourt as well.
This is a truly remarkable stat: At the non-Wimbledon majors dating back to the 2010 French Open, Nadal has reached the final in all but ONE tournament, the 2011 Australian (quarterfinal). That’s right: Nadal has missed two U.S. Opens due to injury, but when he’s played in the event since 2010, he’s made the final every time. He made the 2012 and 2014 Australian Open finals while missing the event due to injury in 2013. Then, of course, Nadal has Roland Garros on lockdown. He has certainly slipped badly at Wimbledon, but his sustained quality on hardcourts certainly adds to his legacy, and it particularly magnifies that previously mentioned truth about him: When he does play, he gets more out of his tennis than anyone else.
Nadal’s focused brilliance, Federer’s remarkably enduring excellence, and Djokovic’s past four years of uncommon consistency have combined to create a triumvirate of titans that has overshadowed everyone else in men’s tennis. Surely, as Federer and Djokovic made their way to the U.S. Open semifinals to face opponents who had never previously contested a semifinal inside Ashe Stadium, every reasonable instinct pointed to victories for the ruling class on the ATP Tour.
Not in one match, but in both, conventional wisdom — accumulated over the past 10 years — received a thumping.
Kei Nishikori’s win over Novak Djokovic was unquestionably impressive, but it wasn’t a masterclass by any stretch. The more lingering memory from that semifinal Saturday was Cilic’s gundown of Federer on an afternoon when Federer made only 17 unforced errors and finished with a plus-11 winner-unforced error differential. That match’s centrality at this U.S. Open was affirmed when Cilic replicated his mostly (though not entirely) nerveless tennis in Monday’s blowout of Nishikori. It’s worth saying more not about Monday’s final, but Saturday’s semifinal, and how it stands against the story of men’s tennis as we’ve known it the past decade.
In order to realize how impressive Cilic’s dismantling of Federer — the true portal to his championship — actually was, you have to go back to another signature moment in this tournament, Federer’s from-the-death escape against Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals.
We’ve seen over the past decade that while underdogs have had their days against the Big Three at the majors, the heavyweights have so regularly found their way out of trouble in the heat of the moment.
How many times did Nadal escape from two-sets-to-one deficits in the early rounds of Wimbledon during the years when he thrived at the tournament? How many first-week matches at Roland Garros did Nadal win after failing to carry the run of play for most of the first three sets?
How many times did Federer climb out of a two-set hole or a two-sets-to-one deficit? He came from behind in three of his six matches at the 2009 French Open, and his run at Wimbledon in 2012 — his most recent major title — wouldn’t have unfolded had he not scrambled back to beat Julien Benneteau in five sets after being blitzed early on.
How many times has Djokovic escaped in a five-setter after an opponent — including Nadal or Federer — held the proverbial tennis knife to his throat? The 2012 Australian Open final (Nadal) and the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Open semifinals (Federer) are not just Djokovic’s finest hours. They represent three of the greatest escapes in tennis history. When Nadal or Federer weren’t involved, Djokovic has ripped the hearts out of others: In consecutive matches at the 2012 French Open, Djokovic trailed two sets to one heading into the fourth set. In the fourth round, he ruined Andreas Seppi’s visions of glory. In the quarters, he gut-punched Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, saving match points by painting baselines and wiggling out of trouble in a fifth set.
You get the picture: Time after time after time, these three tennis icons have crushed souls, smashed dreams, and taken the spoils for themselves in the men’s game.
For all the times when they didn’t get out of bed properly and were pancake-flat through two and a half sets…
For all the times when their opponent red-lined, treed, soared, or whatever word you prefer to use when an underdog plays way above his head…
For all the times when a tricky opponent emerged in a draw…
For all the times when their serves just weren’t clicking or their groundstrokes were constantly missing by half-inch margins…
… Federer, Nadal and Djokovic continued to pile up the wins. They simply did not exit in the early rounds of majors… not for a very long time. The Big Three almost always found that solution, that spark of inspiration, that turning point, that escape hatch. Three imperfect people playing a sport which invites and demands imperfection were so regularly able to be good enough to prevail, no matter the circumstances.
They left Nikolay Davydenko without a major.
They (and health issues) left Robin Soderling without a major.
They left David Nalbandian without a major.
They left David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga — multiple major champions had they played in 1998 or 2002 — without a single major.
They prevented Andy Roddick from winning more than one major. (It could be reasonably argued that Federer’s prime didn’t begin until November 2003, just after Roddick snatched his one major title at the 2003 U.S. Open.)
Federer, Nadal and Djokovic own their prominent shared place in tennis precisely because of the extent to which they’ve shut out almost everyone else. Their grip on tennis history over the past 10 years has made fans and bloggers focus on them, but it’s been easy to lose focus on the other side of the coin: namely, that their control of the story of men’s tennis means so many others have been shut out.
Not even once has an outsider been able to grab that one bread crust of prosperity, of triumph, of satisfaction. Not even once has a second- or third-tier player been able to bust through the Big Three’s defenses at a major since that 2005 Australian Open. Juan Martin del Potro, hampered by wrist injuries, was well on his way to becoming an elite player following his 2009 U.S. Open title. Gael Monfils, in terms of accomplishments, stands a few notches below Delpo (at least one or two), and so when Federer bested him — don’t ask me how — in the quarterfinals at Ashe Stadium, the enduring affirmation of history had seemingly been written in stone once more.
Cilic? Versus Federer? In a major semifinal?
Of course we know how the story ends. Of course we know that Cilic might start strongly, but won’t be able to drive the stake through the Swiss’s heart.
Of course we know that Federer will find a way in a major semifinal with a draw far more favorable than Nadal or Tomas Berdych.
Of course Federer will steal another soul, even in his advanced tennis age. It’s what he does. It’s what he’s almost always done over the past 11 years, with the exception of 2013 and portions of both 2010 and 2011.
Of course… not.
There was no capitulation, no implosion, no moment when Cilic lost his trance or the plot which accompanied it. There was no concession to history after Federer broke him early in the third set, the kind of instance which has historically opened the door to a familiar kind of comeback-cum-collapse.
Marin Cilic attained the largely nerveless consistency which defines tennis at its best. Some might think it boring, but it is verily at the heart of what tennis is all about: Can you toe that service line when all eyes visit you and your opponent has proven time and again that he can rise from the depths of a huge scoreboard deficit? Can you walk to those two spots near the center service notch, gather your thoughts, block out the white noise, and hit tennis’s most important shot — the serve — well enough to win a point without needed to hit a second shot?
There was something sweetly yet suffocatingly Samprasian about the way Marin Cilic handled himself in the final three rounds of this U.S. Open, but especially against Federer. The complete peace. Relishing the act of taking the ball so that he could get right back to pounding an ace down the tee. Knowing that he not only held the hammer in his hand, but would wield it effectively. This is and has always been the perfect combination of composure and confidence a tennis player needs to be at his best.
It’s not just the ownership of strokes — that’s the starting point — but the ability to get the mind out of the way and allow the body to flow through each and every point of technique under withering scoreboard and situational stress. Federer (and Nadal and Djokovic) mastered this central tennis art to the extent that very few others would ever taste the sport’s sweetest feeling: lifting a major trophy. Gael Monfils, in the quarterfinals, was just the latest man in a very long line to (again) experience the emptiness of failing to climb that mountain.
Marin Cilic’s demolition jobs against Berdych, Federer and Nishikori didn’t feel like climbs at all. Yet, that’s the counterintuitive truth of the matter: Cilic, with help from Goran Ivanisevic, unlocked the deep secrets of the human mind. He finally grasped The Inner Game Of Tennis.
He is now that rare human being: a non-Big Three major champion over the past nine and a half years of men’s tennis.