Suspended at this time in 2013, Marin Cilic showed at the 2014 U.S. Open that he could win a Grand Slam title.
Kei Nishikori proved that he can come very close.
And Cilic hopes the last 15 days made clear there are players that casual fans might not be familiar with who are capable of doing these things, too.
”It’s, I feel, very inspirational for all the other guys out there who are working and sometimes losing motivation, having trouble to dig deep and to believe in the achievements,” the 25-year-old Cilic said. ”I would definitely feel much stronger if I would see somebody like me accomplish things like this. It sort of came out of nowhere for me.”
The 14th-seeded and 16th-ranked Cilic’s 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Nishikori in the final at Flushing Meadows on Monday made him the first player in a decade to win a major championship while ranked outside the top 10. (His victory pushed him up to No. 9).
It also made him only the second man from Croatia to earn a Grand Slam singles title; his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, won Wimbledon in 2001.
Cilic did it by winning his last 10 sets against four opponents who had beaten him in a combined 19 of 24 matches coming in: Gilles Simon in the fourth round, Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals, Roger Federer in the semifinals, and Nishikori in the final.
”Something clicked in his head,” Ivanisevic said. ”To play like that against Berdych, to play against Federer – that was just art of tennis.”
Japan’s Nishikori was trying to become the first man from any Asian country to join the major singles champion club in tennis. Even if he didn’t quite manage to do that, the 24-year-old Nishikori did demonstrate that he has the stuff to contend by eliminating three of the top five seeded men: No. 1 Novak Djokovic, No. 3 Stan Wawrinka and No. 5 Milos Raonic.
”Sorry I couldn’t get a trophy today,” Nishikori said, ”but for sure, next time.”
After testing positive for a stimulant he said he ingested through a glucose tablet from a pharmacy, Cilic wound up serving a four-month ban last year that was reduced on appeal. Rankings points and prize money initially taken away from him were restored.
He now credits that enforced absence with giving him time to work on his game alongside Ivanisevic – and for making him tougher.
”Trying to enjoy on the court and enjoy every moment … helped me to be much more relaxed,” Cilic said.
This was the first Grand Slam final since the 2005 Australian Open that didn’t involve at least one of Djokovic, Federer or Rafael Nadal (whose right wrist injury prevented him from trying to defend his 2013 U.S. Open title). That trio also had won 34 of the last 38 major titles. Only one other man, Andy Murray, even won two in that span. It should be fascinating to see how that group manages to regroup in January.
But Monday was all Cilic. Speaking to a small group of reporters between TV appearances Tuesday, Cilic says his championship is "life-changing, completely" and he feels "like I was on a different planet."
Cilic’s newfound celebrity status included reading a Top 10 list for David Letterman and chatting with Charlie Rose.