-- NEW YORK -- Between games, the big board at Arthur Ashe Stadium features the faces of famous on-lookers. During a first-set break Saturday, they flashed shots of former basketball star Michael Jordan, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and singer Gavin Rossdale -- all of them in Roger Federer's box.
That's a lot of star power.
Problem was Marin Cilic was hitting bombs and had won four of the first five games. Things did not get appreciably better for Federer, and Cilic went on to score an unthinkably, laughably easy semifinal victory, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
"It's fairly simple: I think Marin played great," Federer said later. "I maybe didn't catch my best day, but I think that was pretty much it in a nutshell."
Federer, who came back from two sets down Thursday against Gael Monfils, could not summon another heroic return from the brink.
"I wasn't as confident this time around, because Marin played more aggressive," Federer noted. "He was serving huge. From that standpoint, I knew that margins were slim, even though I still believed in my chance."
Cilic, who stroked three straight aces in the final game, stood on the baseline when it ended and extended his arms, beaming. It wasn't until he had shaken Federer that he unleashed a primal scream.
"Just an amazing day for me," Cilic said afterward. "I feel amazing. To play like this, I never dreamed. I think today was the best performance ever in my career."
And so, the tournament's top two men's seeds are gone. The results at Wimbledon suggested there was a change coming in men's tennis, but no one expected the flag bearers to be Cilic and Kei Nishikori.
Monday's men's final will feature the No. 10-seeded Nishikori, who stunned No. 1 Novak Djokovic earlier in four sets, and Cilic, the No. 14 seed.
Back in January, Stan Wawrinka broke through with his first Grand Slam singles title, and now, at the season's last major, we'll have another first-time champion.
This one has to be impossibly sweet for the 25-year-old Cilic, who was at home in Monte Carlo this time last year, serving a drug suspension. He becomes the first Croatian to advance to a Grand Slam singles final since ... his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, won at Wimbledon in 2001.
After reaching his first Slam semifinal, at the age of 21 four years ago at the Australian Open, it seemed like Cilic was destined for more of these major moments.
Federer, the No. 2 seed, missed a marvelous opportunity to win his 18th Grand Slam singles title.
He came in playing terrific tennis, having won 14 of 15 matches since Wimbledon; his 54 match wins were the leading total among ATP World Tour players. And, at 33, he was the oldest semifinalist here since 35-year-old Andre Agassi reached the final in 2005.
After rain delayed the start of their semifinal match for more than an hour, Cilic won the first set handily by serving and returning impeccably. Federer, trying to force things, made his new-and-improved runs to net -- and Cilic took it to him, winning five of those nine points.
Federer, who needed five sets to track down Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals, looked sluggish and a half-step slow. Cilic, attacking Federer's one-handed backhand (it almost looks quaint compared to some of the big hitters), broke him in the fourth game and made it stand up.
Although he had a 5-0 career record against Cilic, the two played last month in Toronto and Federer struggled in three-set win that featured two tiebreakers.
The second set was quite similar, with Cilic breaking Federer early and never giving him a sniff. Cilic served out the second set with a 115 mph ace outside, and an uncomfortable murmur arose around Ashe.
There was a flash of enthusiasm from the crowd when Federer recorded his first service break in the second game, but Cilic broke him back immediately and soon locked down the final frame.
"I think it's exciting for the game, to have different faces from time to time," Federer said. "At the same time, I think people still enjoy seeing the guys they have seen for a while or often in the big matches. Everybody who gets to this stage of this kind of a competition deserves to be there because they have put in the work and they hoped for the break, and this is it for both of them.
"I hope they can play a good final."
Federer, a father of four, is widely viewed as the best tennis player in our planet's history. Against Monfils, he rallied furiously and saved two match points on the way to a stirring five-set win.
Afterward, Federer was still jazzed. He used the word "happy" eight times in postmatch news conference. "Over best of five," he said, "saving match points against Gael in an atmosphere that it was out here tonight, it's definitely very special. Not sure I have ever saved match point before in a Slam."
For once, his usually infallible memory failed him. Turns out Federer saved one match point against Peter Wessels in his first-ever US Open match win. That was 14 years ago, though.
The takeaway: Federer still enjoys playing tennis and loves being Roger Federer. He's not going anywhere soon. It's just that the rest of the field has passed him by; he's failed to win the title in his past nine majors.
Neither Monday finalist has ever played a Grand Slam singles final. The last time that happened? When a kid named Rafael Nadal beat Mariano Puerta to win the 2005 French Open.
"That's going to be a sensational day for both of us," Cilic said. "I'm just going enjoy, be happy and try to win."
Americans shut out
For the first time in seven years, there will be no American boy or girl in the junior finals of the US Open.
There were two U.S. girls in the semifinals, but Sunday's final will feature a Czech Republic player versus a Ukrainian. Caroline Dolehide fell to unseeded Marie Bouzkova 6-3, 6-1 and Katerina Stewart lost to No. 9 seeded Anhelina Kalinina 6-4, 2-6, 1-6.
No. 6 seed Francis Tiafoe, a 16-year-old from College Park, Maryland, was the United States' last hope. But he squandered two match points and lost to the No. 5 seed, Frenchman Quentin Halys, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (6). Tiafoe actually won one more point (102-101) than Halys.