New York: Nishikori overcame intense heat and humidity and unnerving winds to triumph 6-4 1-6 7-6 (7-4) 6-3 over the top-ranked Djokovic to become the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam final.
Cilic then delivered a masterclass to sweep past second-seeded Federer 6-3 6-4 6-4 in a second semi-final boilover to leave fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium shell-shocked.
The title match will be the first Grand Slam decider not featuring any of tennis’s so-called “big three” — Federer, Rafael Nadal or Djokovic — since Marat Safin beat Lleyton Hewitt at the 2005 Australian Open.
Both Nishikori, the Japanese 11th seed, and Cilic, the 14th seed from Croatia, have overcome major career setbacks to qualify for their maiden grand slam finals.
Nishikori had been in doubt for this very tournament after pulling out of the Cincinnati Masters with a toe injury that the 24-year-old believed would end his American hardcourt season. Brave back-to-back five-set comeback wins over Canadian fifth seed Milos Raonic and third-seeded Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka booked the Japanese underdog’s date with destiny — and he again delivered.
He broke the top seed five times and rebounded from a half-hour second-set lull to continue his giant-killing run.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Nishikori said.
“It’s an amazing feeling beating the world No. 1 player.
“I was a little bit tired, especially because it was my first time in a Grand Slam semi-final.
“It was really tough conditions today. It was heavy, but I guess I love to play long matches and I hope I can recover for the final.”
A year after losing to a qualifier in the first round, Nishikori will incredibly now play for a record $3.25 million cheque after ousting three top five seeds in a sensational giant-killing run.
Cilic, a former Australian Open semi-finalist who has twice previously made the last eight in New York, is back at Flushing Meadows on a mission after sitting out last year’s tournament while serving a reduced four-month suspension for testing positive to a banned substance.
The 25-year-old maintains he tested positive for a banned stimulant contained in a supplement bought over the counter by one of his staff and says the controversy is fuelling his desire to hit back in Grand Slam fashion.
Now Cilic is one win from doing so after crushing Federer in straight sets.
Bidding to become the oldest men’s champion since 1970, 33-year-old Federer was simply unable to stop Cilic in the first two sets.
A rain shower between the semi-finals left conditions heavy and Cilic prospered as the five-time champion struggled to generate anywhere near as much power from the back court.
After winning just 17 points on Cilic’s serve throughout the first two sets, Federer conjured a desperately needed break early in the third set.
Undeterred, Cilic continued to dominate and broke straight back — and then again to lead 4-3 and have Federer on the ropes.
The 17-times Grand Slam champion was unable to mount a fightback as Cilic crunched his 11th, 12th and 13th aces, then a blistering backhand winner down the line to close out the match in stunning fashion after just one hour and 45 minutes.