New York: The draw to another Grand Slam title, the 18th he has been targeting since winning Wimbledon in 2012, had never looked more inviting for Roger Federer when he stepped on court to play Marin Cilic late Saturday afternoon in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.
Gone were all other members of the Big Four fraternity, the axis of dominance that had claimed 36 of the last 38 men's tennis majors from the French Open in 2005 to Wimbledon this summer.
Rafael Nadal did not play the tournament because of an injured wrist. Andy Murray went out in the quarterfinals to Novak Djokovic, the top seed, who was stunned Saturday by Kei Nishikori in the first semifinal in the steamy Arthur Ashe Stadium.
After a rain-delayed start, all Federer had to do was defeat the 16th-ranked and 14th-seeded Cilic, to whom he had never lost, to establish himself as the heavy favorite in Monday's final against Nishikori, the first Japanese man to reach a Slam final.
He couldn't come close.
The execution was swift and convincing. Cilic overpowered Federer, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, and perhaps, with Nishikori, sent a message to the world that the Big Four reign is no more, or approaching its end.
Cilic said that Stan Wawrinka's victory at this year's Australian Open "opened the door for the second line."
"Most of the guys have a bigger belief," he said.
While saying later that he believed "it was exciting for the game to have different faces," Federer disagreed with the notion that the Big Four was history.
"You said the same thing in Australia, everybody," he said. "And then we know what happened at the French Open final, Wimbledon final." He added: "I don't think so, but ..."
He knew it had to be asked. Equally questionable is how many more chances - at least as good as the one he appeared to have here - the 33-year-old Federer will get to pad his record 17 Slams. He naturally preferred to characterize the defeat as a singular event, saying: "Marin played great. I maybe didn't catch my best day, but I think that was pretty much it in a nutshell."
Cilic, a 6-foot-6 Croat, two inches taller than his idol and coach, Goran Ivanisevic, called the 1-hour-45-minute rout "the best performance ever in my career."
Cilic, who was suspended for four months from the sport last year after testing positive for a banned substance and returned in February, had too much weaponry for Federer, especially on serve. Federer managed just two break points in the match, converting one to take a 2-0 lead in the third set.
The crowd roared with the belief, or hope, that he might mount another comeback from two sets behind, as he did in his quarterfinal against Gael Monfils. Federer knew, or at least sensed, otherwise.
"He was serving huge," he said. "I knew the margins were slim."
Cilic broke Federer again for a 4-3 lead, moving well for a big man to step around his backhand and rifle a forehand winner off a short-angled sliced Federer backhand. Serving for the match at 5-4, Cilic blew three straight aces by Federer for triple match point.
In his player box, Ivanisevic - whose Wimbledon victory over Patrick Rafter in 2001 was on a rain-delayed Monday afternoon in front of a raucous crowd - took a deep breath.
Cilic, for his part, said, "I was very relaxed." He finished off his masterpiece with a two-fisted backhand down the line.
With his heavy groundstrokes, Cilic was the steadier player from the backcourt, backing Federer up during rallies and making him watch too many winners sail into the open court.
Federer admitted being surprised by Cilic's consistency.
"I think he was quite erratic before, especially from the baseline," he said. But Federer - who beat Cilic in a close three-set match last month in Toronto - also acknowledged that Cilic, at 25, has been an earnest and maturing competitor, especially after returning from his suspension and working with Ivanisevic.
Instead of the anticipated Federer-Djokovic replay of the Wimbledon final, along with the multiple Grand Slam winners Stefan Edberg (Federer) and Boris Becker (Djokovic) as their coaches, it will be Ivanisevic against Michael Chang, one of Nishikori's coaches. Ivanisevic (Wimbledon) and Chang (French Open) each won one Grand Slam title during their careers and were as much a contrast in size and style as Cilic and Nishikori.
While Cilic represents the generation of taller players many have believed will inherit the sport, Nishikori is 5-10 and 150 pounds, a scrapper in the image of Chang, generously listed at 5-9 during his playing days.
For Federer, whether it was a case of having no snap in his legs after the Monfils escape, or just catching Cilic on his best day, the defeat had to be dispiriting after how promising the summer had been - making the finals at Wimbledon and winning the pre-Open event in Mason, Ohio.
He said he would continue pursuit of his 18th Slam, though adding, "I don't need it to be happy or anything." But his voice was understandably subdued at the end of another trophyless Grand Slam season. A day that seemed to develop with so much promise, so much hope, had given way to talk of a tossup.
Calling Nishikori an "unbelievable talent," Federer said he was more surprised by Cilic's advance to the final.
"Who's the favorite?" he said. "Nobody really knows."
That's the first residual effect of nobody from the Big Four showing up.
© 2014 New York Times News Service