Goran Ivanisevic gave Marin Cilic the “little kick” that helped him break through the wall to become a grand slam champion.
The Croatian’s 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Kei Nishikori in the US Open final made him the most unexpected male slam winner in more than a decade.
Arguably, the last man to pull a rabbit out of a hat in such a way was Ivanisevic himself at Wimbledon in 2001, although the surprise there was that everyone thought his chance had gone.
Not many people gave Cilic a chance at all, and those who did when he was a prodigious teenager, had no doubt wavered in the intervening years.
Ivanisevic always believed in Cilic and recommended his old coach, Bob Brett, to his countryman when he was a teenager.
That relationship broke down last year and it was to Ivanisevic whom Cilic turned, with spectacular results.
“The first time I saw him I knew he was special,” said Ivanisevic. “When he was working with Bob, when he made semis at the Australian Open, but there was always somehow a little bit of a wall in front of him.
“A thin wall but sometimes these thin walls can be very thick walls. You can’t break through. And now he just went through the wall. Through the thick wall and he didn’t look back.”
Ivanisevic’s main mantra to Cilic has been to be more assertive and to trust in his natural attacking abilities, which too often he did not make the most of.
“[I told him to] go play, go show the world what you can do,” said the 42-year-old. “He went out and look at this. He won a grand slam.
“He’s just more relaxed. Everything is relaxed. My approach is more relaxed. We have fun, we joke around. I’m not a guy who is like a general. I was a player so I know when to back off, when to push him a little bit. This is the result.
“Bob was a great coach. Bob was my coach so all the credit to Bob. Bob made him until there. He needed something, one little kick – I made this kick and look at him now. He’s on the top.”
It was the manner of Cilic’s breakthrough rather than simply the act itself that dazzled, the 25-year-old defeating Tomas Berdych, Roger Federer and Nishikori back to back without losing a set.
“That’s another unbelievable thing,” said Ivanisevic, who shed tears as Cilic talked on court about the work they had done together.
“Without dropping a set in the quarters, semis and final. Wow. It’s like you’re talking about Roger Federer here.”
Cilic joins Juan Martin del Potro as the only man younger than the “big four” of Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray to win a grand slam title.
A final between him and 24-year-old Nishikori at last showed that change is coming in the men’s game, and Ivanisevic thinks that is only a positive thing. He said: “I mentioned four players at the beginning of the year who are going to be top 10 – Nishikori, [Milos] Raonic, [Grigor] Dimitrov, Cilic. They are all four in top 10. It looks like I know something about tennis.
“It’s better, it’s more interesting. Raonic is for sure going to win a grand slam, Dimitrov is going to for sure win a grand slam. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nishikori wins a grand slam, so this is great.
“We have three or four more potential winners of the grand slams, which is another great story for tennis.”
Cilic embarked on a media tour of Manhattan yesterday but there will be no time for big celebrations because he must head to Holland for a Davis Cup tie starting on Friday.
The 25-year-old climbs to nine in the world, a leap of seven places and could well go higher given he sat out this period of the season 12 months ago because of a doping ban.
Ivanisevic said: “Why stop now? It’s step by step. He has no points to defend until the end of the year.
“He can only go higher and higher. Nine was his best ranking but he never played tennis like this.”
Nishikori was the first Asian man to reach a slam singles final but nerves and a string of long matches got the better of him in the showpiece encounter.
Ivanisevic believes former players make the best coaches and Nishikori is another man to have benefited from the current trend having begun working with former French Open champion Michael Chang late last year.
Chang said: “Kei’s had an unbelievable run here. He didn’t play his best tennis but all credit to Marin.
“Marin’s been playing well and obviously in the semi-finals did very well, served big, and he did what he needed to do. He handled the nerves a little bit better than Kei did. I think that was probably the difference.
“It was tough. He’ll definitely be better for it. He’ll be better prepared next time.”