At long last it’s time for the main event. The final Grand Slam match of the year, the final U.S. Open match televised by CBS (for now, at least), and for many, the most anticipated match of the year.
Kei Nishikori vs. Marin Cilic.
That’s right. As you likely know, for the first time since January 2005, there is no member of the Big Four in a men’s major final. That’s pretty significant.
It becomes even more significant when you realize that the 2005 Australian Open final was contested between two men who were relics of the pre-Big Four era, former No. 1s and major winners Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin.
You have to go back even a few more years to find a comparable surprise in a final. Perhaps Albert Costa vs. Juan Carlos Ferrero in the 2002 French Open final? I’m not even sure that’s far enough.
The point is, that this Nishikori vs. Cilic U.S. Open final is unprecedented in this era of the ATP. So how in the world did we get here?
I have two words for you: Stanislas Wawrinka. (Or Stan. Maybe Stanley.)
That’s right. Nishikori and Cilic’s breakthroughs can be traced back to the beginning of this year, when Wawrinka took out Novak Djokovic, Tomas Berdych, and Rafael Nadal to win the 2014 Australian Open and become the first non-Big Four member to win a major in five years.
There needed to be a first. Someone needed to show that the guys on top were human, be it mentally or physically. Someone needed to bust up the aura and show that it was not a given that Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Djokovic, or Nadal had to win a major. There was another option.
The Big Four Era has had a lot to do with the extreme talent and consistency of the guys at top. But it has also had something to do with the guys right on the cusp feeling like a breakthrough was nearly impossible.
This isn’t just blind conjecture. I spoke with a few players this summer about how seeing Stan hoist that Australian Open trophy had impacted them, and from the small sample size I spoke with, it was unanimous: Seeing Wawrinka win the Australian Open made them believe that there was at least a chance that they could too.
“It just opened my eyes in the sense–if he can do it, why can’t I?” Milos Raonic told me at the Citi Open. “Those guys have such a threshold on so many of the top tournaments, when you see Stan do it–I’ve played him so many times, and he’s beaten me each time we played, but I always felt like okay, I can beat this guy on the right day. It made me sort of open my eyes.”
“It did, actually,” John Isner said at the Winston-Salem Open when asked whether Wawrinka’s win inspired him. “I think not just me, it’s given a lot of players some belief. The Big Four have been so dominant for so long–they’re not going anywhere, but maybe they’re not as invincible as they once were. It gives a guy like me some belief.”
The truth is, Wawrinka’s win should have given any player in the top 20 belief that they too could win a major. Because very little separates a guy like Wawrinka from the rest. He’s not a player who’s going to dominate week in and week out, but he’s a guy who at his best can challenge the top players.
Enter Nishikori and Cilic, two guys a few years younger than Wawrinka. There had been a seemingly impenetrable wall at the top of the game basically their entire careers.
It’s never been a secret that both of these guys have extreme amounts of talent, but there was always something in the way–for Nishikori it was typically physical fragility, while for Cilic it was usually mental.
Let’s start with Kei. The Japanese star broke through when he was only 18, winning the 2008 Delray Beach title as a qualifier ranked No. 244. The future seemed bright. But then, time and time again, his body broke down. He’d come back for a bit and get great wins–prior to this U.S. Open, he’d defeated both Federer and Djokovic–but he never seemed ready to take the next step.
“You know, Stan did amazing job in Australia, and he’s still doing amazing results this year,” he said at the Citi Open. “Raonic and Dimitrov, those two guys made semis of Wimbledon, that was great to see a little bit of change. And, I hope I can sneak in there sometime in the future.
“There is still difference, you know, top five guys and top 20, those guys are very consistent, they don’t miss easy balls, they never give you easy points to win a game. But for me, I don’t feel any fear to play them anymore.”
You could tell throughout this season that Nishikori wasn’t feeling any fear. He almost had his big breakthrough in Miami, when he took out Federer in the quarters, but he had to withdraw before his semi against Djokovic. He almost had an even bigger breakthrough when he was up a set and a break over Nadal in the Madrid final, but then his back seized up and he had to retire.
With his new-found belief, all Nishikori needed was a week or two in a row where his body would hold up. That happened at this U.S. Open. With no fear and an ability to go the distance–he’s 10-2 in five-setters in his career, which is incredible–Nishikori has taken out three top-five seeds in a row, including the only two 2014 Grand Slam champions in the draw.
Marin Cilic, meanwhile, has had a, well, interesting year. After a drug ban took him off of the tour for the second half of last season, there were many question marks surrounding him in his return.
Cilic has been around since he was a teenager too, and he’s always been able to make the top guys look feeble for a set or two, and then completely disappear from matches before doing any real damage.
He claimed to have worked on his mental and physical strength a lot during the ban, but when he first came back it was more of the same. Sure, he’s won two titles and pushed Djokovic to five sets in the Wimbledon quarters, but when it came time to really make a career leap, he faded away.
Then came this fortnight, when it all came together. He scrapped his way through the first week, refusing to fade in tough matches against Kevin Anderson and Gilles Simon that he might have lost in the past. Then he kicked it up a notch, beating No. 6 Tomas Berdych and No. 2 Roger Federer in straights. There wasn’t a single moment of doubt or hesitation in his game. He simply let the talent flow.
In his post-match presser, Cilic confirmed the theory–Wawrinka’s win in January had helped him.
“I mean, just being able to see that [Stan’s] able to beat those guys,” he said. “Okay, he was close. Last year semis here. But sort of he made that huge jump in short period of time. I wasn’t thinking, Oh, I can do it, but I knew I had to work and it’s possible.
“Wawrinka opened the doors for us from the “second” line, and I think most of the guys have now bigger belief that they can do it on the Grand Slams.”
Now look–none of this is to say that Djokovic, Federer, Murray, and Nadal are done. Far from it. This was undoubtedly a down year for the top guys, with Murray in a post-surgery slump, Nadal dealing with injuries, Federer still getting older, and Djokovic being less consistent. Even in a down year Federer made a final and Nadal and Djokovic both made a final and won a Slam. They are still going to be threats to win every major they enter. But, undeniably, things are different now.
The last man outside of the Big Four to win a major was Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open, but that didn’t cause any ripple effects. Delpo was 20 years old then, the Big Four wasn’t as established, we were just a year removed from Djokovic’s breakthrough, and Delpo seemed to be made out of the same special thread as the other top guys.
Wawrinka, meanwhile, was just one of the pack. One of the others, a good player but not a great one. All potential, little payoff. That is, until a week in January where he became Stan the Man. He showed that if you play up to your potential and control what you can, it’s possible to do something phenomenal. He seized the day.
Now, Nishikori and Cilic have seized the day too. One of them will join Wawrinka as a major champion in just a few hours. If Wawrinka gave others in men’s tennis belief by beating an injured Nadal in the Australian Open final, a Nishikori-Cilic major final (at the expense of Djokovic-Federer!) might as well be the sign of a revolution.
The Big Four aren’t going anywhere, but they’re going to have to make room for a lot of others in the spotlight from now on. You can thank Wawrinka for that.