Marin Cilic always stands tall. When you are 6-6 and a tennis player, you have your head well above the net.
On Monday, Cilic stood even taller. Riding a cannonade of serves and a precise forehand, he became the unlikely winner of an unlikely men's final at the U.S. Open. He beat the unlikely Kei Nishikori, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
There was no Roger Federer in the final. Cilic dispatched him in the semifinals. There was no Novak Djokovic, either. Nishikori ousted him in the semifinals. There was no Rafael Nadal, who withdrew from the tournament with a wrist injury. There was no Andy Murray, who succumbed to Djokovic in the quarterfinals.
There also was no disputing that Cilic, the No. 14 seed, and Nishikori, the No. 10 seed, earned the right to play this final by fighting through tough opponents and sweltering weather. They played before a crowd (which included Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka) pulling for Nishikori.
"It seems completely unreal to be called Grand Slam champion," Cilic said. "I was dreaming about this all my life, and suddenly last four or five days, everything started to change. And with my tennis especially. I started to play absolutely unbelievable starting with the fifth set against [Gilles] Simon. After that I had unbelievable run against these top guys. And what it means to me, it means everything."
And to think that Cilic wasn't even here last year, serving a suspension for a drug violation that had been reduced from nine months to four. The Court of Arbitration for Sport determined that the original punishment was too severe after finding a member of Cilic's entourage had given him a banned substance that was a glucose booster.
Nishikori had two wins against Cilic earlier this year and had twice beaten him before at the Open. That might have made him the favorite here, except the 2014 U.S. Open didn't play any favorites.
Nishikori had to deal with a foot injury this summer and didn't play between Wimbledon and the Open. He also played five-set matches against Milos Raonic (till 2:26 in the morning) and Stan Wawrinka that totaled more than 81/2 hours.
"You know, I didn't expect nothing coming here," Nishikori said. "Before I was, you know, injured and little practice. There is so many positive things that I can have from these two weeks, beating Stan and Novak again. Disappointed today, but very good two weeks."
Cilic's serve, which exceeded 130 mph on occasion, made the biggest difference. He had 17 aces, including four straight to win the sixth game of the second set. Nishikori managed to break Cilic only once while holding nine break points. When he did get the break, in the eighth game of the second set, Cilic broke right back to win the set.
Cilic, playing in his 29th major, is the first Croatian to win the Open but not the first to win a Grand Slam title. That man was in his friends box Monday: Goran Ivanisevic, his coach, who won Wimbledon in 2001.
Ivanisevic was well known for his unrestrained emotion as a player, but with Cilic, he brought calmness and delight. "He brought very relaxed atmosphere, extremely huge knowledge," Cilic said. "I mean, every day with him is extremely fun."
It was a big evening for his little country.
"It's a special day for me, but an extremely special day for all Croatia," Cilic said. "Considering everything, it's a miracle."