WASHINGTON -- The rematch was 334 days in the making and provided the Citi Open with a first. Never before had Washington's stop on the men's tour included a finals rematch from the previous U.S. Open.
Facing Marin Cilic also meant Kei Nishikori could gain some measure of revenge after losing in New York last September. The Japanese star took advantage.
Nishikori rallied after a slow start for a 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 victory over Cilic in the Citi Open semifinals Saturday.
The first Japanese man to reach a Grand Slam final will battle American John Isner in Sunday's championship match. The eighth-seed whalloped 31 aces and survived three match points from Steve Johnson for a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (9) win to reach his third Citi Open final.
"It's good to win against a top 10 player and especially Marin," Nishikori said. "We had a battle last year at the U.S. Open. It's great to have revenge today and I hope I can keep going tomorrow."
In their only previous meeting, the 6-foot-10 Isner downed the 5-foot-10 Nishikori early this year on hard courts in Miami.
In the women's draw, American Sloane Stephens thumped 2011 U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur 7-6 (4), 6-0 to reach her first career final. She lost her previous six semifinal appearances.
Stephens will face Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova Sunday. Pavlyuchenkova, a Washington finalist in 20112, advanced to the women's final after top seed Ekaterina Makarova withdrew before the third set with the match even at 4-6, 6-3.
Despite Nishikori's revenge admission, neither player copped to thinking about the previous match emotionally, only tactically.
That certainly made sense for Cilic.
He won the U.S. Open final in less than two hours, winning all three sets 6-3.
"It was giving me a direction to think about the game, to plan what I could do in the match," the Croatian said about the prior meeting. "I think I was pretty focused to execute those things."
That is until the second seed found his rhythm in the second set.
One of the hottest players on tour, Nishikori improved to 42-9 in 2015. Only Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have won more ATP this matches (48) this year.
That winning version didn't show early as Nishikori lost the opening three games. After dropping the set, instincts kicked in.
"He was playing well so I kind of let go of the first set and I tried to hit a little more aggressive," Nishikori said. "Some of the shots I have to close my eyes and just hit the ball."
Nishikori raced out to a 5-0 in the second set despite needing medical assistance for left leg tightness.
Known for his powerful two-handed backhand, Nishikori also took a quick lead in the final set, breaking Cilic in the opening game. Trailing 2-4, the third-seeded Cilic fought back to even the match, but he lost his serve at 5-4.
Nishikori served out the match to become the first men's player from Japan to reach the Washington final. He owns two titles on tour this season and is 9-5 all-time in ATP World Tour finals.
"I showed some good tennis, too. I think it was a great win for me," he said.
Additional chances during the hard court season remain for Cilic, including defense of his U.S. Open title. The 6-foot-6 bomber knows which part of his game needs work.
"Next matches I'm just going to try to be more focused with my serve, to be more deadly," he said.
Such a statement would be impossible for Isner after he used his powerful serve for his own revenge win. Johnson upset his fellow American in the Citi Open round of 32 last year.
He was tantalizing close to pulling off the same trick and treat himself to his first ever final appearance on the ATP World Tour. Johnson missed a running forehand wide at 6-4. Isner erased two other match points against with aces, including one clocked at 141 miles per hour. Soon after he nailed a service winner to convert his second match point against one of his best friends,
"I'm a little heartbroken, obviously," Johnson said.
Coming off his first title this season in Atlanta, Isner aims for his first-ever championship in Washington after losing his previous two final appearances. He fell to Juan Martin del Potro in the 2013 finals.
"I'm so excited to be back in the final here," isner said. "Hopefully it will be third time lucky."
The Citi Open Tennis Tournament is August 1st through the 9th at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. For tickets and more information go to www.citiopentennis.com.