After the frustration and the waiting; after the nerves and last year's bitterness, it suddenly looked easy for Marin Cilic.
See ball. Hit ball. See opportunity. Seize opportunity.
He has never had a bigger one on a tennis court, and the 6-foot-6 Cilic truly did not flinch: walking tall into Arthur Ashe Stadium and playing taller as he swept to the U.S. Open title with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 rout of Kei Nishikori. (Related: Marin Cilic puts Croatia on tennis map again)
"Everything I was working for and dreaming came today," said Cilic, a 25-year-old Croatian. "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." (US Open final in pics)
A year ago, Cilic missed the U.S. Open because he was serving a suspension after testing positive for a banned stimulant. Though he faced a two-year ban, he appealed, arguing that he had unintentionally ingested the substance in a glucose tablet, and succeeded in having the suspension lifted after four months.
"It angered me how all the process went, because it was not fair to me," Cilic said last week. "It wouldn't be fair to any tennis player. So that was just very bad memories. But, you know, when you're against big organizations you are small hand. You can't do much. So I just accepted it. When I came back to tennis court I erased it from my memory. I just used the positive parts, which, you know, made me tougher."
He returned to the tour in October and rose in the rankings. He arrived in New York seeded 14th and with two titles already to hisÂ credit in 2014. But it would have taken quite a soothsayer to predict that from that platform, he would claim the Open trophy in a men's tennis era when outsiders have so rarely managed to reach the finish line at major tournaments.
"I think the stars crossed," Cilic said in a postmatch interview on CBS, mixing the metaphor but still making an essential point, because a star has certainly made a big difference for Cilic.
Goran Ivanisevic, the big-serving and charismatic Croatian, became Cilic's coach late last year and has clearly brought both expertise and positive energy to his countryman.
"We are working really hard, but the most important thing he brought to me was joy in tennis and always having fun," Cilic said.
Now, both the coach and the pupil have one Grand Slam singles title apiece. Ivanisevic won his in strange-but-true fashion, too, winning Wimbledon in 2001 as a wild card in a final pushed to Monday because of rain.
"I guess Mondays are special for Croatians," Cilic said.
This was likely the last Monday final in history at the U.S. Open. The men's final is scheduled to move back to its traditional Sunday slot next year. In 2016, if construction proceeds on schedule, Ashe Stadium will finally be equipped with a retractable roof. (Also read: Fans proud of Nishikori despite his defeat | Nishikori makes a name for himself)
CBS, broadcasting the Open for the final time after 46 years, marked the occasion (and filled the airtime made vacant by the lopsided final) by showing footage of the classic 1991 U.S. Open match between Jimmy Connors and Aaron Krickstein: long a CBS rain-delay staple.
The ill will and suspense generated by that late-night tussle was quite a contrast with the straightforward, civil nature of the Nishikori-Cilic match.
It was the first Grand Slam singles final for Nishikori and Cilic, but only Nishikori did a reasonable impression of a rookie.
Â© 2014 New York Times News Service