September 8, 2014

Breaking New Ground

Well who'da thought we'd be here on Championship Monday at the U.S. Open?

Before action got started in New York two weeks ago, oddsmakers gave Kei Nishikori a 50-1 chance at taking home the title. His opponent in the final, Croatia's Marin Cilic, was an even longer shot at 66-1. But the two men, both relatively untested in the back half of the Majors, took out five top ten players between them to make this evening's final -- putting together the first all-virgin men's Major championship since the 2005 French Open.

Both players had historic runs over the past two weeks. Nishikori, who'd pulled out of Masters events in Toronto and Cincinnati with a toe injury, survived back-to-back five-set marathons in Flushing Meadows, logging more than eight-and-a-half hours on court in his victories over Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka; against top seeded Novak Djokovic on Saturday, he stayed tough after dropping an ugly second set to become the first Asian in a U.S. Open final. And Marin Cilic, who missed last year's U.S. Open -- and most of the fall events, for that matter -- because of a doping violation, roared back on the scene, notching his first career wins over the likes of Gilles Simon and heavy favorite, seventeen-time Slam titleist Roger Federer in the semis; with a 14-21 record against his seven opponents in New York, he was almost never considered a favorite. But ultimately they each rose to the occasion -- it wasn't the final we expected, but after the campaigns they'd each waged, you can't say they hadn't earned the right to play for the trophy.

With two double-digit seeds battling it out Monday, the outcome was far from certain -- their previous two meetings in New York took nine sets and almost as many hours to complete, and each man claimed one victory. Nishikori might have been the slight favorite today, with a slightly better ranking and a healthy 5-2 record against the Croat. But ultimately, it seemed, the extra time on court finally got to the man from Japan -- though Kei earned a break chance in the opening game, Cilic steamrolled ahead, once giving back an insurance lead in the second set, but quickly regrouping to close it out and eventually sealing the win with his thirty-eighth winner of the match.

With the victory, Cilic becomes the lowest ranked men's champion since then-#44 Gaston Gaudio took the title in Paris in 2004. More importantly, though, he's become one of the few men to break the stranglehold Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have had on the Slams over the past decade. And while we'll see over the next few months and years whether he has what it takes to add trophies #2-and-beyond to his mantel, something tells me he's only just started his climb to the top. And I don't suspect this will be the last we hear from Nishikori either. For these two athletes to overcome such incredible odds against them on such a big stage, it seems only appropriate that they now begin to stack the odds in their own favor.

And once they do, there's no telling how far they can go.

No comments: