The winds of change blew through the 2014 US Open in every possible sense. Real winds swirled around the vast Arthur Ashe stadium in the later rounds to challenge everyone’s ability to deal with a ball that dipped, moved, held up and flew.
But the perception of change was everywhere, blowing through the corridors of the USTA offices as well as around the grounds of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center. Patrick McEnroe, the Player Development chief, resigned, ostensibly because he did not want to re-locate to the USTA’s new headquarters which is being built in Orlando, Florida. Some wanted him out anyway because men’s tennis in America is at its lowest ebb in history. It was inevitable that McEnroe should carry the can but let no one say that he was not sincere in trying to make things better. He brought in fine coaches; spent time travelling the country (although not enough in some people’s eyes) and did his best in a very committed way. His successor is not going to find any quick solutions although a new crop of teenage talent headed by the likes of Stefan Kozlov, Francis Tiafoe, Noah Rubin and Jared Donaldson is offering glimpses of a brighter future.
In the meantime it was players from far flung parts of the world that created the headlines and helped make this a very different US Open apart from the one and only Serena Williams who, along with the Bryan brothers, salvaged American pride as they have been doing for a decade. Serena with her 18th Grand Slam singles title and Mike and Bob, with their 100th doubles title overall and 16th in Slams, ensured that something very familiar and noteworthy was not entirely absent from this great tennis festival.
But, otherwise the spoils went to Europe and Asia with the latter region rejoicing in the powerful statement made by Peng Shuai in reaching the semi-finals before heat and cramps ruined her chances of emulating her fellow – and absent – Chinese, Li Na, by winning a Grand Slam title. And in Japan there was even more cause for celebration as Kei Nishikori produced three stupendous performances in beating No 5, seed Milos Raonic; No 3 seed Stan Wawrinka and top dog Novak Djokovic before finding his tank empty in the final. Personally, I think Nishikori is a top 5 talent if his body can get him there. I was hugely impressed by the way be beat James Blake to win the Delray Beach title back in 2008 and became totally convinced of his remarkable talent when he started to take Rafael Nadal apart on clay in the Madrid final last May before injury struck again. Now he just needs to stay fit to prove he is one of the finest tennis players in the world.
Nishikori needed his legs to have a chance against Marin Cilic in the final but they were simply too fatigued after two grueling five setters in the previous rounds. Cilic, of course, might have won anyway because the manner in which he took out Roger Federer in straight sets in the semi-final was astonishing. With his serve, power packed ground strokes and reach, the 6ft 6” Croat suddenly looked like the player many thought he could be. Bob Brett laid the ground work for this fine athlete and Goran Ivanisevic added the finishing touches, especially on the serve.
The question everyone is asking is “Is this the end of the Top4, after at least one of whom had appeared in every Grand Slam singles final since 2005?” My answer is no. It would come as no surprise to see another Djokovic/Andy Murray final at the Australian Open in January and who knows how well Rafael Nadal will perform when he returns. Of course, Federer is still a very real contender. He went into the US Open having won more matches than anyone else on tour – a remarkable achievement for a 33 year old. But Federer is nothing if not remarkable.
Having made such a strong statement in New York it is up to Cilic and Nishikori to maintain this level of play and establish themselves in the upper echelons of the Top10. If they can, it will make the next twelve months on the ATP really interesting.
The other heart warming aspect of these championships was the number of relatively unknown faces, young and not so young, who demanded attention. On the men’s side, Austria’s Dominic Thiem gave further evidence of his considerable promise by ousting stable-mate Ernests Gulbis and going on to reach the fourth round by beating 19th seed Feliciano Lopez before falling to Tomas Berdych.
Nick Kyrgios followed his shock victory over Nadal at Wimbledon by defeating two veterans, Mikhail Youzhny and Andreas Seppi in the first two rounds before falling to Tommy Robredo. The Australian teenager has the power and the personality to make a huge impact in the coming years and looks every inch a future Grand Slam champion.
But it wasn’t just the youngsters who caught the eye. Irish eyes, in particular, were smiling when James McGee was overcome with emotion when he qualified for a Slam for the first time in a long career and who had ever heard of 34-year-old Victor Estrella Burgos?
Apparently he has been hiding his talents in the Dominican Republic all these years and will have given tennis in that country a nice little boost after beating Igor Sijsling and the 17-year-old Croat Borna Coric (another teenager to watch) before pushing Raonic to three tie breaks in the third round. Late in his tennis life, Burgos has risen to 69 in the world.
There was a wonderful comeback by Mirjana Lukic-Baroni, now 32, who outplayed No 2 seed Simona Halep to reach the fourth round of a Slam for the first time since she took Steffi Graf to three sets in the Wimbledon semi-final of 1999. All manner of troubles had afflicted her career, not least parental, but she proved that determination and talent pays off.
Alexandra Krunic of Serbia came into the tournament ranked 145 but that did not stop her beating Madison Keys 7-5 in the third and then, emboldened, from taking out Wimbledon Champion Petra Kvitova 6-4, 6-4 before going down to Victoria Azarenka. At 21, Krunic is just starting to make her mark.
Then, there was 15-year-old Cici Bellis from Atherton, California who stunned Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 in the first round before losing to Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas. At 15? There’s obviously talent there and Cici seems mature enough to make the most of it.
So does Belinda Bencic who looked the best equipped of the teenage girls as she swept through to the quarter finals, beating No 6 seed Angelique Kerber 6-4, 6-4 and No 9 seed Jelena Jankovic 7-6, 6-3 before falling to Peng Shuai. Belinda is being assisted by Martina Hingis’ mother and it shows. At 17, she obviously knows how to play the game and Switzerland appears to have yet another champion in the making.
The US Open of 2014 certainly found a new one in Marin Cilic, the new star whose easy-going charm as well as his talent promises to adorn the game for years to come.
Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 160 Grand Slams. He is author of 16 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." He was the play-by-play commentator for BBC Radio at Wimbledon for twenty years.