Cilic-Nishikori Final at 2014 US Open Shows Rough Road Ahead for Men's Tennis

Art SpanderFeatured ColumnistSeptember 9, 2014

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NEW YORK — They figured it out a long time ago in Hollywood and just across the river from here on Broadway: You need a star. It didn't really matter if a famous actor could act, only if he was famous.

Whether that was because of what he did on or off the screen was insignificant.

You become a hit by selling entertainment, not Shakespeare. You become a hit by putting big names on the marquee.

The final of the U.S. Open Monday night didn't have those names. What it had was Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori.

They are talented, dedicated and successful. They aren't much of an attraction, and they didn't have much of a match. In only one hour and 54 minutes, Cilic crushed Nishikori 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.

Arthur Ashe Stadium was sold out, but there were a good number of unfilled seats, with people choosing not attend when the matchup didn't meet their standard. After all, this is New Yorknot Peoria, Illinois.

Sure, the match started at 5:08 p.m. ET. Sure, it was held on a Monday. Sure, the weather was cool and breezy. But you just know if Roger Federer or Novak Djokovicor, best of all, bothhad been playing, the place would have been filled.

The semifinals had the big guys, but the little guys—figuratively speaking, since Cilic is 6'6"—knocked them out. The reaction of some was, "Great." But not from CBS-TV, which was showing the tournament one last time.

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ESPN will cover the tournament starting next year.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 08:  Marin Cilic of Croatia reacts after defeating Kei Nishikori of Japan to win the men's singles final match on Day Fifteen of the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 8, 2014 in the Flus
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We need new faces in tennis or golf, we're told, but when the faces show up, the public does not—even if, in this case, most of the 24,000 seats at Ashe were sold out in advance.

A barometer for this one was the report in Bloomberg on Monday morning that a dip in secondary prices for tickets "could lead to a quiet evening in the seats and among television viewership."

That’s a kind way of saying, "If you haven't unloaded your tickets by now, you're going to take a bath."

According to SeatGeek (via Newsday's Neil Best), after Federer and Djokovic were upset in the Saturday semifinals, the price for resale tickets plummeted.

Ever check the covers of People or Us Weekly, or the content of Entertainment Tonight or Inside Edition? They don't attract attention with a story on some studio technician or production assistant. They feed us a diet of Jennifer Lawrence and George Clooney, Beyonce and Jay-Z.

A-listers make us turn the pages or pick up the remotes. Surprise finalists do not.

It's not the fault of Cilic or Nishikori that they upset the big names. That's sports. That's also a possible box-office disaster.

Individual sports are the opposite of team sports, where people pull for the underdogalthough they watch the games with top teams, such as Michigan, Alabama and Florida State.

Maybe someday, Cilic, who missed last year's Open because of a drug suspension, will be as well-known as Rafa Nadal or Federer.

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 Flus
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Cilic certainly can move a tennis ball (17 aces against Nishikori), but for the moment, he just doesn't move the needle.

You want to know why ESPN is always showing Peyton Manning, Tony Romo or LeBron James? Because those players raise the ratings.

In team sports, at least, there's a feeling of loyalty to the hometown 11 or the old school. It's different for tennis and golf.

If Cilic or Nishikori were American, maybe more people than the tennis purists would have taken note. But they're not American, and that makes it even worse.

Federer has been so good for so longalthough he's 33 and in declinehe's deservedly celebrated everywhere, transcending borders.

The guy in the stands and the woman in the streets want Federer to win the way they want Nadal and Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to win. They don't want to ask, "Who's he?"

Golf's U.S. Open in June at Pinehurst, North Carolina, had the same trouble as tennis' U.S. Open in September: A non-American, relative non-entity—Martin Kaymer—took the trophy. Two majors for Kaymer. No excitement about Kaymer.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 08:  Marin Cilic of Croatia celebrates with the trophy after defeating Kei Nishikori of Japan to win the men's singles final match during their New York City Trophy Tour on September 8, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trot
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Cilic, at No. 16 (seeded No. 14), is the lowest-ranked man to win the Open since Pete Sampras, ranked 17th in 2002. However, Cilic and Sampras are about as far apart as Croatia (Cilic's home country) and California (Sampras' residence).

Pete not only is a U.S. citizen, he had already won 13 Grand Slams previously.

The Australian Open this year had a surprise champion, Stan Wawrinka. The guy he beat, however, was hardly a surprise (Nadal). Then Nadal, as scripted, won the French, beating Djokovic. The Wimbledon final matched Djokovic against Federer. So far, so good. Glamour, glitz, greatness.

Djokovic is only 27, Nadal is 28 but frequently hurt. Who knows how long Federer can play at a high level?

The days of the Big Four—let's throw in Andy Murray—may not be over, but they are slipping away. We're probably headed for more of the new kids, or the kids who are almost new but hardly stars.

It's a reality not lost on Cilic, according to the New York Times:

Everything I was working for and dreaming came today. And I feel for all those other players who are working hard this is a big sign and big hope that if you are working hard things are going to pay off.

This reality is also problematic for men's tennis, as the U.S. Open showed that interest wanes considerably when the four players who have defined the era exit early.

The last Grand Slam of 2014 had everything it needed, until the final act. Would it be possible to shoot the scene again with another ending?

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