NEW YORK—A flash of Marin Cilic's arm sent a serve blurring past a lunging Kei Nishikori and splattering off the back wall, like a streak of yellow on a blue canvas.

Cilic painted Nishikori into a corner with his booming serve and rubbed him right out of the U.S. Open final with his bold strokes. In a match of first-time major finalists, a commanding Cilic overpowered a weary Nishikori, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, to capture his first career Grand Slam title.

The 25-year-old is the first Croatian man to capture a major championship since his coach and childhood hero, Goran Ivanisevic, defeated Patrick Rafter to win Wimbledon on "People's Monday" in 2001. Thirteen years later, Ivanisevic has helped Cilic relocate his toss and streamline his service motion, which paid huge dividends tonight and throughout the Open.

Cilic's serve and return—he converted five of 11 break points—framed a dominant performance. The 14th seed repeatedly bruised the back wall, striking 17 aces, winning 80 percent of his first-serve points, and surrendering serve just once in the match. Nishikori's groundstrokes and aggressive court positioning are his strengths, but Cilic nullified them, pushing the 10th seed behind the baseline with the depth of his drives.

Drained by successive five-set, four-hour marathon wins over Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka, followed by a four-set semifinal upset of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic played amid searing heat, a depleted Nishikori never looked sharp. Empowered by his shot at a major, a confident Cilic saved a break point in the opening game and rarely looked stressed thereafter. Stadium lights bled through the murky sky and a tricky breeze created the coolest conditions of the tournament. "I think my serve is gonna be the key out there," Cilic told CBS' Mary Joe Fernandez before stepping on the court.

The 6'6" Cilic backed up that belief, slamming down a pair of love holds in succession, including a two-ace game, for 3-2. Pressuring his tight opponent in the next game, Cilic earned triple break point, slithering a slice backhand low to coax an errant forehand, breaking for 4-2.

U.S. Open: Cilic d. Nishikori

U.S. Open: Cilic d. Nishikori


A two-point sequence in the next game highlighted the dilemma Nishikori faced. He stretched Cilic, only to see the big man take one stride to his right and snap off a forehand that nicked the sideline. When Cilic wasn't bounding around the court, he slammed a 130 M.P.H. dart down the middle, holding for 5-2 after just 24 minutes of play.

Nishikori, who had hit the ball so cleanly and competed so calmly throughout the tournament, was fighting the wind, his nerves, and an oppressive opponent—and losing on all fronts. Cilic threw down his third love hold of the set, winning 16 of his last 17 service points in seizing the 33-minute opener despite serving just 44 percent.

Some players hug the baseline; Cilic suffocates it. The rangy Croat has such a wide wing span, squeezing shots past him looked as daunting as trying to bear-hug the Unisphere. He scalded a flat forehand for his fourth break point at the start of the second set. The tense No. 10 netted his most reliable weapon, the backhand, to surrender serve and trail 1-2.

Nishikori earned triple break point—his first since the opening game—but Cilic erased them all, rattling his sixth ace off the court-side clock to deny the third before crunching an inside-out forehand for 3-1. When Nishikori netted a forehand to drop serve again, it felt he had passed the point of no return. Cilic reeled off five of the last six games for a 5-2 lead after only one hour of play.

The crowd tried to rouse the Japanese with chants of "Kei! Kei! Kei!", but Cilic wasn't hearing it. A clever lob from the Croat exposed the languor in Nishikori's legs as he soared—but snapped his smash into the tape to face set point. Cilic crunched a forehand down the line, securing a two-set lead after 70 minutes, overwhelming his opponent with a 23-10 advantage in winners. Pacing slowly to his seat, Nishikori swiped sweat from his forehead, but he couldn't wipe away the deficit.

A 23-shot rally ended with Nishikori sailing a backhand beyond the baseline as Cilic broke for 3-1 in the third. He fought off three break points holding for 5-2. The end came just as quickly. Cilic rapped a backhand winner cross-court, erupted in a primal scream, and collapsed to his back. The world No. 16, who retooled his game during a four-month drug suspension he served during the 2013 U.S. Open, returned to New York to create career revival. Cilic arose with a wide smile as the first man ranked outside the Top 10 to win the U.S. Open since 17th-ranked Pete Sampras defeated Andre Agassi to win his final Grand Slam title a dozen years ago.

U.S. Open: Cilic d. Nishikori

U.S. Open: Cilic d. Nishikori