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New faces in U.S. Open final belong to Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic

Marin Cilic serves against Roger Federer in the

Marin Cilic serves against Roger Federer in the first set of the men's semifinals match at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing on Sept. 6, 2014. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Sorry. Monday's U.S. Open men's final is not one steeped in classic rivalry or implications of all-time greatest. No Roger Federer. No Novak Djokovic. (No Rafael Nadal, absent from this annual competitive argument because of a bad wrist.)

For intrigue, instead, tennis followers will have to settle on the unknown, on two unlikely first-time major-tournament finalists.

Japan's Kei Nishikori, 24, never had been beyond the fourth round in his previous 20 Grand Slam appearances and was known as much for his frequent injuries as his obvious potential.

Croatia's Marin Cilic, 25, was a 2010 Australian Open semifinalist but regularly was sent packing in the early rounds of his 28 majors. Plus, he missed last year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open because of a doping violation. (Though officials, convinced his use of a stimulant was inadvertent, reduced his suspension.)

But here they are.

Nishikori put an exclamation point on a theme of persistence and endurance -- consecutive five-setters, one ending at 2:26 in the morning -- by dismissing Djokovic in four sets in their semifinal despite withering heat and humidity.

And Cilic demonstrated a steadying control of his power game by soundly beating Federer in Saturday's semifinal.

A glimpse of the tennis future?

"I think it's exciting for the game to have different faces from time to time," Federer said (while admitting he'd prefer to be playing in a seventh U.S. Open final). "I'm more surprised with Cilic, to be honest, because he's been around longer. But there is a significant difference in how he plays recently. Whereas Kei, I always thought he had unbelievable talent, way back when I played with him for the first time when he was 17. Just wasn't quite sure, in a best-of-five-set tournament, he could get all the way to the end."

Nishikori called his presence in Monday's final "a little bit" surprising, "but not too much. I have been beating top guys already this year."

Federer (in March in Miami), current No. 5 David Ferrer and No. 6 Milos Raonic (in April in Madrid) were among his victims.

At the Open, the 11th-ranked Nishikori knocked out Raonic and No. 4 Stan Wawrinka back to back. Nishikori has a 5-2 career record against Cilic, ranked 16th, including a five-set victory in the second round of the 2010 Open.

Cilic, meanwhile, is coming off a run to the Wimbledon quarterfinals and spoke of how Wawrinka's breakthrough in winning Australia this year -- a small crack in the long Slam dominance of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray -- "opened the doors for us from the second line. I think more of the guys have now bigger belief that they can do it in the Grand Slams.

"I wasn't thinking, 'Oh, I can do it,' " Cilic said. "But I knew I had to work and it's possible. Just over a week here, Kei beat Wawrinka, Milos and Novak, so [he] played an amazing, amazing tournament."

For the two of them to be playing for a major title, Cilic said, is an "extremely huge achievement . . . special day for both of us."

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