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.