NEW YORK - Kei Nishikori didn't have enough left in his legs to make more history.
Trying to become the first man from Asia to win a Grand Slam singles championship, Nishikori's run ended Monday in the final of the U.S. Open. Marin Cilic of Croatia, also playing in his first major title match, won 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.
The 24-year-old Nishikori defeated three of the top five seeds. He beat No. 5 Milos Raonic and No. 3 Stan Wawrinka in five sets in back-to-back matches totaling more than 8 1/2 hours. Then he upset No. 1 Novak Djokovic in four sets in the semis to become the first man from Asia to reach a Grand Slam singles final.
''I think I showed my potential (that) I can beat anybody now,'' he said.
But the fatigue showed against Cilic.
''Played too (much) tennis on the court these two weeks,'' Nishikori said. ''Couldn't fight one more match.''
He started the U.S. Open unsure if he could win any matches. The 10th-seeded Nishikori missed tuneup events before the tournament because of a severely infected right big toe.
Instead of an early exit, he reached his first Grand Slam semifinal, and then won that match, too.
''There are so many positive things you can get from these two weeks,'' he said.
Among those is the growing interest in tennis back home in Japan. In Nishikori's hometown of Matsue, over 800 fans packed into a convention hall to cheer on their hero at a standing room-only public viewing event.
Giant banners emblazoned with messages of encouragement hung on the walls. ''Good Luck Kei Nishikori, the Star of Matsue,'' read one.
The match started at 6:10 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Some fans stopped by to watch on their way to work while others took the day off.
''This is easily the biggest thing to happen in Matsue in my lifetime,'' said 59-year-old office worker Michiya Yamauchi.
The hall fell silent when Nishikori lost the final game of the second set. With Nishikori down a break in the third, the crowd started to thin as people headed for the exits with plenty of time to be at their desks for the start of the workday.
''Nishikori really impressed us with his determination, and I think this will make a lasting impression and make tennis more popular in Japan,'' said university student Nozomi Maruyama.
Among his fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday was Japanese baseball star Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees.
Nishikori couldn't control points with his groundstrokes as he had in the last three matches. He wasn't able to do much against the 14th-seeded Cilic's big serve.
''Cilic stepped up more and Kei was waiting a little bit and he could never enter into the match,'' said Dante Bottini, Nishikori's co-coach along with 1989 French Open champ Michael Chang.
Nishikori was already looking ahead optimistically to repeating this feat. Next time, he said, he hopes he won't have to play so many five-set matches.
As he accepted the runner-up award, Nishikori told his supporters, ''Sorry I couldn't get a trophy today, but for sure, next time.''
Feature photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Segar