Cilic's Charge: No. 3 Seed Battles Into 2nd Roland Garros QF
One year ago, Marin Cilic had never made the quarter-finals at Roland Garros in 10 previous attempts. He went on to become the first Croatian man to make it that far in Paris in more than a decade (Mario Ancic & Ivan Ljubicic, 2006). Yet just a year later, the Croatian now has a chance to go even further.
Cilic battled past the resilient Italian, No. 18 seed Fabio Fognini, 6-4, 6-1, 3-6, 6-7(4), 6-3 on Monday to reach his second consecutive quarter-final on the Parisian terre battue. The victory not only gives him his 28th five-set victory, tying for second among active players with Novak Djokovic according to the FedEx ATP Performance Zone, but it ends Fognini's six-match winning streak in five-setters.
"It was a difficult. It was a tough day mentally. First two sets I played solid. I think Fabio was not playing that well. He was missing some balls, and I gave him opportunity in that third set," Cilic said. "First few games in the fifth set I also was not returning well, and it was who is going to break first, and I was lucky it was me. I just continued to put pressure until those last couple points and then, lucky we got through."
The No. 3 seed Cilic has quietly had a successful European clay-court season, reaching at least the quarter-finals at both of the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments that he contested on the surface. In Rome, he reached his maiden clay-court semi-final at the elite level, falling in a tight two-setter against Madrid champion Alexander Zverev.
Cilic, who will play No. 5 seed Juan Martin del Potro for a spot in the semi-finals, has found his best form at the Grand Slams lately. The 29-year-old reached the championship match at two of the past three majors, losing to Roger Federer at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon. If the 2014 US Open champion can advance to the final four in Paris, he will earn his 25th match win at Roland Garros, tying Zeljko Franulovic for the second most among Croatian men.
And for a while, it looked as if his nonstop aggression, carried out while hugging the baseline, would be enough to cruise past Fognini in decisive fashion, breaking four times in the first two sets. But the Italian intelligently dropped further back to give himself more time. He made it easier to not only defend, but to take bigger cuts at the ball and land his shots deeper on the Croatian's side, pushing Cilic back so he could not control every rally.
That paid dividends in the third set, as Fabio broke twice in a row to dig his way into the battle. And from there, his impressive shotmaking took over. After saving a match point while serving at 4-5 in the fourth shot, the Italian played sensational tennis in the tie-break, hitting stunning winners on the run — including a flicked one-handed backhand down the line— to rally the momentum and the crowd, storming into a deciding set.
But Cilic was simply too steady on serve, dropping just six points in the decider of the three-hour, 37-minute classic. Fognini had an opportunity to move ahead 4-3, putting pressure on the 29-year-old, but he crucially double-faulted to allow Cilic back into the game. The World No. 4 took full advantage, breaking two points later when he aggressively blasted a backhand return deep down the middle, rushing Fognini. The Italian attempted to get out of the way, hitting an inside-out forehand that clipped the net and ricocheted wide.
"There was some, obviously, great rallies, great, you know, cat-and-mouse points, coming to the net to go left, right. And with Fabio, it's always like that," Cilic said. "It's not easy mentally to stay in there, but for me it was a big focus just to keep focusing on my game and to continue to look for the opportunities. I know I missed a lot of them, but I knew one or two were going to come again."
Fognini was attempting to join compatriot Marco Cecchinato in the final eight, which would have marked just the second time in the Open Era that two Italian men have advanced that far at a major. If the 2011 quarter-finalist would have advanced, he would have become the third Italian in the Open Era to reach the last eight multiple times, joining Adriano Panatta (6) and Corrado Barazzutti (3).
Instead, Fognini settles for his second consecutive fourth round appearance at a Grand Slam, and his first run that long in Paris since 2011.
"I'm just sad at the moment, for sure, because I was two sets down," Fognini said. "It's painful also because I lost the match, but, I think I'm happy about my performance. I'm happy about how I'm feeling. I'm happy because I think this one, it's just statistics, but I can improve my tennis even more and also my ranking."
While Cilic is the higher-ranked player, he faces a stiff test in the next round against Del Potro. The Argentine leads their FedEx ATP Head2Head series 10-2, and has won their past seven matches, with six of those victories coming in straight sets.
"It's always a tough matchup between both of us. I think we are always playing some tough matches, and I believe this one is going to be, for both of us, very tough," Cilic said. "There's going to be a lot of points played from the baseline that can make a difference... I think, in these kind of matches, not many points are differentiating the players. So it's going to be extremely important to play every single point on a high level."
Did You Know?
Cilic earned just his second victory against a Top 20 player at Roland Garros, making his record against the elite group 2-7 at the clay-court Grand Slam. The only Top 20 player he had previously defeated in Paris was No. 19 Radek Stepanek in the third round in 2009.