Marin Cilic: Time To Leave The Past Behind
Cilic's chance to put Wimbledon woes behind him comes in London
Four months after an emotional appearance in his first Wimbledon final, Marin Cilic is back in London after qualifying for the Nitto ATP Finals for the third time. As Stuart Fraser of The Times writes, victory for Cilic this week would be a heartening tale.
One of the enduring images of this year’s Wimbledon men’s singles final is of Marin Cilic breaking down during a change of ends, with the Croatian sitting on his chair with his head buried under a towel. Those tears came around 45 minutes into the match when Cilic, trailing by a set and 0-3, and with two medics crouched in front of him, was hit by the realisation it wasn’t to be his day. That distress was borne more of frustration than of physical pain.
Now, it is hard enough to beat Roger Federer – who is considered to be the greatest grass-court player in history, and who would score a record eighth Wimbledon title that afternoon – when you are fully fit, never mind when a blistered foot is hampering your movement across the Centre Court grass. “It came to the point where I felt that my chances of winning were very slim,” Cilic recalls. “Considering the injury that I had, it just pushed me back emotionally and I felt in that moment, ‘That’s it, I cannot give my best in one of the most important matches of my career’. Just considering all the facts, it was little bit too tough for my mind.”
It was a rare display of emotion from someone who has always had a reserved manner on the court. While most of the crowd had come in the expectation of seeing Federer make history at the All England Club, they appreciated that Cilic needed their support in that moment. So as he stood up from his chair to continue play, many of the 15,000 spectators were also up on their feet. Four months later, Cilic is back in London, where he can expect a warm welcome. He has always enjoyed playing in the city, and that appreciation and affection for the British tennis public have only grown since such a collective show of kindness in the summer.
Cilic’s blisters have long gone, he is over the disappointment of losing a Wimbledon final, and much satisfaction can be taken from the season he has put together to qualify for the Nitto ATP Finals for the third time.
Finishing among the leading eight players is all the more impressive when you consider he made a slow start in the first three months of this year, including losing his first matches at the opening two ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments of the season, in Indian Wells and Miami. It was on the clay that Cilic’s form finally took an upward curve. By defeating Milos Raonic, of Canada, in the final of the TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Open, Cilic took at least one title on the ATP World Tour for the 10th consecutive year. With 17 titles, Goran Ivanisevic (22) is the only Croatian to have more. That same week, Cilic also became only the third player from his country, after Ivanisevic and Ivan Ljubicic, to win 400 or more matches. A run to the quarter-finals of Roland Garros was his best performance in 11 appearances.
With his confidence at a high, Cilic set himself up for the grass-court swing, for a surface on which he has always been a force, thanks to the powerful serve he can fire down from a height of 6’6”, and his atomic forehand. Here in London, Cilic came close to winning the Aegon Championships at The Queen’s Club for a second time to add to his 2012 triumph, but, despite holding a match point against Spain’s Feliciano Lopez, he could not quite get across the finish line, and after two and a half hours eventually lost 10-8 in the deciding tie-break. Despite departing with no trophy, Cilic was at least comforted in the knowledge that he had only dropped his serve once all week.
This level of performance continued at Wimbledon, where Cilic, almost three years after winning the 2014 US Open, reached his second Grand Slam final. “I think that part of the year was the most consistent I have ever played during my whole career,” Cilic says. “In that stretch from the clay-court season to the end of the grass-court season, I found that great balance of playing really good tennis on a high level and still keeping it consistent match after match, week after week.”
Unfortunately, Cilic’s momentum was lost through sustaining an adductor injury. He did not hit a ball until two weeks before the US Open, and played no other tournaments leading into the last major of the season. “I was just a little bit unlucky to get the injury at that moment after Wimbledon, after such good form and playing such great tennis,” says Cilic, who lost in the third round in New York. “It pushed me maybe one step back in regaining my form and getting back to the court and finding the nice balance I had during the grass-court season.”
Cilic did eventually rediscover his mojo during the Asian swing last month.
Consecutive semi-final appearances at the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships in Tokyo and the Shanghai Rolex Masters earned him a career-high position of No. 4 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. On Cilic’s two previous appearances at the season finale, in 2014 and 2016, he didn’t progress into the knock-out stages, but his return this week may well prove more fruitful if he can bring the high level of play he has shown recently.
A settled period with his coaching team of Jonas Bjorkman, the former World No. 4 who was hired in August last year, and Ivan Cinkus, who joined Cilic’s team in April 2015, has brought improvements to his game, particularly to his serve. “I am a little bit more consistent this year in serving performances. I’m winning quite a lot of service games and a lot of matches. I’m leaving the match either not broken or broken only once, so that’s something very valuable for me. Overall, when I’m playing well, I’m going to give myself a lot of chances on the returns. I’m keeping that pressure all the time on the guys, and it pays off in the end.”
If Cilic’s serve and forehand are in full flow at the Nitto ATP Finals, this week may well end with the trophy in his hands. Four months after his tears at SW19, victory in SE10 would be a heartening tale.