New York: Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic will meet in the US Open men’s final after Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, the tournament’s top seeds with a combined 24 Grand Slam titles, were upset by players who will be making their major championship debuts.

“It’s exciting for the game, you know, to have different faces from time to time," Federer, a 17-time Grand Slam champion, said after his loss. “It’s big for Croatia and big for Japan I guess on some level, especially on sporting terms and tennis terms. Everybody who gets to this stage of this kind of a competition deserves to be there."

Tenth-seeded Nishikori of Japan became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam final in the 137-year history of tennis’s biggest tournaments with a four-set win against top-seeded Djokovic. Cilic, the No. 14 seed, beat No. 2 Federer of Switzerland in straight sets in one hour, 45 minutes.

Prior to this week, Nishikori and Cilic had one combined Grand Slam semifinals appearance in 48 tournaments—the Croat’s loss to Andy Murray in the 2010 Australian Open. Nishikori had 50-1 odds to win the title before the tournament began, according to the Las Vegas Hotel’s SuperBook. Cilic’s odds were 80-1.

Justin Gimelstob, an analyst for the Tennis Channel, said in an interview that while a Federer-Djokovic matchup would have been “incredible" for the sport, the final presents “a different type of value."

Future value

“But it might not be realized during the match," he said. “It might be realized when Kei Nishikori goes to play Tokyo in a few weeks. It might be realized when Marin Cilic goes to play Bercy in the fall. Or a couple years from now when they have major championships and, God forbid, Roger and Rafa (Nadal) aren’t around. There’s value in it, it’s just going to take getting used to."

Nishikori, 24, opened the men’s semifinals with a 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3 win against top-seeded Djokovic, 27, of Serbia. He broke Djokovic’s serve five times, including in the first and last games of the final set, to complete his third straight victory over a top-10 opponent.

“I feel the support from Japan, even from the TV," Nishikori said in a courtside interview. “It’s 4 o’clock in the morning, but I hope everyone’s watching.’

Nishikori is the fifth highest-paid men’s tennis player in the world, according to Forbes magazine’s annual rankings, trailing Federer, 14-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and 2012 US Open champion Andy Murray. Of the $11 million he made from June 2013 through June 2014, $9 million was from endorsement deals with companies including Adidas AG, Delta Airlines and Tag Heuer, the magazine said.

‘Very pure’

After a rain delay that lasted about a half hour, 25-year- old Cilic used his booming serve to beat five-time US Open champion Federer 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. Cilic allowed Federer, 33, two break points, and fired three straight aces in the final game.

“I have some days where I am shanking a lot of balls, but today it was very pure," Cilic, who missed last year’s US Open while serving a drug suspension, said in a news conference.

It’s been 17 years since the US Open championship match featured two men playing in their first Grand Slam final—in 1997, Australian Patrick Rafter defeated Briton Greg Rusedski for the title. The final is on Monday night at the National Tennis Center in New York.

“When was the last time we didn’t have any of the top four men—I’m talking Murray, Federer, Djokovic and Nadal—in the finals of a Grand Slam?" 18-time Grand Slam women’s singles champion and Tennis Channel analyst Martina Navratilova asked. “It’s exceptional."

Cyst removed

The 2005 Australian Open final, between Australian Lleyton Hewitt and Russia’s Marat Safin, is the answer Navratilova was looking for. Since then, Nadal has won 14 majors; Federer has 13; Djokovic has seven, and Murray two. The rest of the tour has two.

Nishikori almost didn’t play in the US Open. He came to New York having taken four weeks off to recover from a cyst on his right foot that was surgically removed in August.

Cilic missed the 2013 US Open while serving a nine-month doping suspension after testing positive for a banned stimulant. The International Tennis Federation accepted his explanation that he inadvertently ingested it while taking glucose tablets bought at a pharmacy, giving him a reduced penalty and backdating his ban so he was able to resume playing this January.

‘Best tennis’

“First point to the last I was absolutely playing the best tennis of my life," Cilic said. “Considering the huge occasion I was playing in, I mean, for the second time in a semifinals of a Grand Slam, it just can’t be more special."

Gimelstob said it’s unclear whether tennis fans will find tomorrow’s unlikely final matchup equally special.

“The star players have hoarded the limelight and the major titles and the finals and the attention for so long," Gimelstob said. “It’s going to take people by surprise, but both Roger and Novak got outplayed today, and that’s the beautiful part of sports." Bloomberg

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