NEW YORK (AP) — After nearly a full decade of Grand Slam finals involving Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, Marin Cilic’s victory over Kei Nishikori at the U.S. Open gave hope to others that there might be room at the top.
From now until the next major tournament, the Australian Open, begins in January, the discussion becomes about whether what happened in 2014 really signals a transformation in men’s tennis. And, if it does, who might be next to elbow his way into the mix.
“I feel,” Cilic said Tuesday, “the percentage got bigger for the rest of the guys.”
Starting with the 2005 French Open, at least one of Federer, Nadal or Djokovic participated in 38 consecutive Grand Slam finals; two members of that trio faced each other in 17 of those title matches.
And that tiny, talented group combined for 34 of the championships in that span. The four exceptions over 9 1/2 years leading into this U.S. Open: Juan Martin del Potro’s victory over Federer at the U.S. Open in 2009, Andy Murray’s wins against Djokovic at the U.S. Open in 2012 and Wimbledon last year, and Stan Wawrinka’s defeat of Nadal at the Australian Open this January.
So what did someone such as Cilic, a 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) big hitter with gobs of natural ability, think as he saw the same players collect the hardware time after time?
“That they are great champions, and it’s going to take so much to break them and to break (into) the finals of a Grand Slam or to be able to win it,” he told a small group of reporters between TV appearances in Manhattan.
“Last several years, it almost felt like you have to play incredible tennis in order to achieve that,” Cilic said. “And I would say I was also a little bit lucky here. There was no Rafa. And I had a good draw. I didn’t play Novak or Andy or those guys.”
He did, however, win the last 10 sets he played at the U.S. Open, against four opponents who were a combined 19-5 against Cilic entering the tournament.
That included a straight-set domination of Federer in the semifinals, raising questions yet again about whether, at 33, the 17-time major champion will ever add to his total.
Nadal didn’t try to defend his 2013 U.S. Open title because of his latest injury, this time to his right wrist.
Djokovic disappeared against Nishikori in the semifinals.
Murray, recently added to what used to be known as the “Big 3” to create what some consider a “Big 4,” is still not quite up to the standards he was setting before back surgery a year ago.
Wawrinka’s triumph in Melbourne left some, including Cilic, with an inkling that things were going to be different. So did Grand Slam semifinal debuts by Ernests Gulbis at the French Open in June, and by Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic at Wimbledon in July.
“They are coming. They are there. This is good for tennis,” said Cilic’s coach, 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic. “This is a new, fresh breath of air for tennis, and tennis needed this.”
After his loss in New York to Cilic, Federer was asked about whether the fact that there would be a U.S. Open final without him, Djokovic or Nadal meant something.
“You create your stories. You said the same in Australia, everybody; and then we know what happened at the French Open final, Wimbledon final,” Federer said. “But this is another chance for you guys, you know. So you should write what you want.”
He’s right, of course. The title match at Roland Garros was Nadal vs. Djokovic, and the title match at the All England Club was Djokovic vs. Federer.
Which is why Cilic, who turns 26 this month, is certainly not ready to write them off just yet.
Nor should he be.
“I mean, the guys are going to still be there,” Cilic said, looking ahead to next season.
“I don’t know if some new guys are going to be Grand Slam champions,” he said, “but for sure, I mean, guys like me, Raonic, Dimitrov, Nishikori, del Potro — when also he comes back (from wrist surgery) — I feel we are having a much bigger opportunity.”
Howard Fendrich covers tennis for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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