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Men's Tennis Begins New Era with Kei Nishikori-Marin Cilic Final at 2014 US Open

Art SpanderFeatured ColumnistSeptember 7, 2014

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 06:  Roger Federer of Switzerland greets Marin Cilic (R) of Croatia after their men's singles semifinal match on Day Thirteen of the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 6, 2014 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

NEW YORK—Up at the Stadium, they said farewell to Derek Jeter on Sunday, gave the Yankee shortstop of 20 years his special day, a couple of weeks before retirement. Twenty-four hours earlier and a few miles away, across the East River, we said goodbye to an era in tennis.

So long to a Grand Slam men’s final which had Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray. So long to what we knew. So long to what we expected.

On Monday, Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic meet for the U.S. Open Men’s Singles Championship. It’s the first time in 38 majors without one of the Big Four. It will not be the last time.

A new shortstop for the Yankees. New stars in tennis. And golf. The Tiger Woods era is done, so they say. The Rory McIlroy era has begun.

Nothing is forever. No one is forever. Especially in sports where age and injury alter the landscape all too quickly. Change, always change.

Djokovic isn’t going away, for certain. But the mystique of his superiority has taken a jolt. The hard courts of Billie Jean King Center, as well of those at the Australian Open, are his best surface. Yet he was overwhelmed by the 24-year-old Nishikori.

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NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 06:  Kei Nishikori of Japan greats Novak Djokovic (L) of Serbia after their men's singles semifinal match on Day Thirteen of the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 6, 2014 in the Flushing
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The way Nadal was beaten in the fourth round at Wimbledon in July by 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios. That just before 23-year-old Grigor Dimitrov whipped defending champ Andy Murray.

We sensed then a shift was coming in the men’s game. Maybe not immediately, but it was there on the horizon.

Nadal, while only 28, has bad knees and a sore wrist. How long can he last? Federer, 33, won’t reach another Slam final. Murray is the same age as the 27-year-old Djokovic, but for him, each match seems a climb up a mountain.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 26:  Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland and Rafael Nadal of Spain looks on at their presentation after Wawrinka won their final match during day 14 of the 2014 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 26, 2014 in Melbourn
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Already this year there was a breakthrough when Stan Wawrinka won the Australian, defeating Nadal in the final. Rafa supposedly had back troubles, but that’s part of the issue isn’t it? The older you get the more ailments you incur.

With the classic exception of Federer, who throughout a history in which he’s won a record 17 Slams has never been injured, other than suffering some back pain.

So Wawrinka won in Australia and either Nishikori or the 25-year-old Cilic will take the Open. And it’s either the best thing that can happen to the sport or if you’re doing the telecasting, the worst.

A Yankee fan stays a Yankee fan, no matter who’s at shortstop. Or in right field. But, ah, tennis is, as is golf, a sport without team loyalty, a sport requiring familiarity.

Everyone knows Nadal and Federer. And Djokovic. But who will watch Nishikori against Cilic? The transition will be difficult. It also may be exciting.

Maybe there’s an American about to work his way toward the top.

Or maybe Nishikori, a man of two cultures, from Japan but trained and living in the United States, captures a few titles and the attention of the public and becomes the Ichiro Suzuki of tennis.

“He’s been around for the last couple of years,” a magnanimous Djokovic said of Nishikori. “He’s been making a lot of success. But playing finals of a Grand Slam and now fighting for a title is definitely something different.”

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 06:  Marin Cilic of Croatia celebrates after defeating Roger Federer of Switzerland during their men's singles semifinal match on Day Thirteen of the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 6,
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

And something different is about to take over tennis, something new. Wham, wham, wham. Three aces by Cilic to begin the final set against Federer. Wham, wham, wham, the explosion throughout the sport.

“You saw everything,” affirmed Cilic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic, a former Wimbledon champion. “When you give lessons of tennis to Roger Federer, it means you’re amazing. That’s too good.”

The Federer fans think that’s too bad. Their man is nearer to the end of his wonderful career than the beginning. It was 2001 when a little known Federer surprised six-time champion Pete Sampras at Wimbledon. Pete’s time was about to become Roger’s time.

Now Roger’s time is ebbing away. Who steps up? Who grabs the brass ring? Who gets his own logo, as Federer, the interlocking “RF,” on his hats? Nishikori? Cilic? Kyrgios? Dimitrov? Milos Raonic, the young Canadian. Or none of the above?

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 06:  Roger Federer of Switzerland wipes his face while playing against Marin Cilic of Croatia during their men's singles semifinal match on Day Thirteen of the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Se
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Federer in effect sneered at the thought, raised by a journalist, that the times are a changing.

“You create your stories,” was Federer’s response. “You said the same in Australia. Then we know what happened at the French Open final, Wimbledon final. But this is another chance for you guys (in the press). So you should write what you want.”

What we wrote is that the men’s game, to use a tennis term, is in a changeover. And Federer to his credit saw the benefit, even if it’s not to his advantage.

“It’s exciting for the game to have different faces from time to time,” Federer said. “It’s definitely refreshing to some extent.”

Unless you are one of the Big Four.

Art Spander, an award-winning columnist, has covered more than 50 Grand Slams in his career. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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