After Disappointing 2019, Cilic Finding Top Level At Australian Open
“1-2, 1-2, 1-2, serving, boom, forehand, serving, boom, backhand. He's very aggressive,” Federer said at 2016 Wimbledon.
The 31-year-old Cilic has returned to that mindset and style of play this week at the Australian Open. The 2018 finalist gained his first Top 10 win in 16 months on Friday, beating No. 9 Roberto Bautista Agut 6-7(3), 6-4, 6-0, 5-7, 6-3 to make the fourth round in Melbourne. Cilic had last beaten a Top 10 player at the 2018 US Open (No. 10 David Goffin).
Cilic has won a Grand Slam and played in two other major finals, but after his worst season in 12 years, these wins mean something extra to the 6'6” Croatian who is working his way back to the Top 20 and seeking his second Grand Slam title.
“Possibly one of the toughest matches I played, just in terms of the level... From beginning until the end, [Roberto] played on his own level without too many ups and downs.
“It was just extremely difficult physically and mentally both, and [to] sustain it for more than four hours, it just gives me great satisfaction and feeling very proud, definitely,” Cilic said.
“It's great for me that I win these kind of matches against somebody like him who is in great form, playing great.”
Bautista Agut was 8-0 after helping lead Spain to the ATP Cup final in Sydney, and the Spaniard had beaten Cilic in five sets last year in the fourth round at Melbourne Park. But Cilic gained Melbourne revenge to move to 5-2 against Bautista Agut in their ATP Head2Head series.
“On the critical situations, I played really well,” Cilic said. “I deserved every single point that I won today.”
Most crucially, Cilic maintained his belief against Bautista Agut all match, despite his disappointing 2019 that saw him go 22-19 overall and 0-4 against Top 10 players.
“He was playing very fast, very aggressive without mistakes,” Bautista Agut said. “It's maybe the best match he played against me.”
Cilic finished last year at No. 39 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, marking the first time since 2007 that he finished a season lower than No. 37, where he ended 2013. The Croatian also saw his 11-year title streak snapped and reached only one semi-final (Moscow).
“It was just a different season for me than many other ones that I had, due to various things. I spent quite a few emotions in 2018 with the Davis Cup, and it was long season again,” he said.
Cilic led Croatia to the 2018 Davis Cup title, a meaningful and emotional win with his countrymen. But the victory ended his season later than usual, on 25 November.
“Then during the season I felt that my mindset and my [physical ability] went down a bit and was just difficult to sustain it for the whole season,” Cilic said. “But those things are great to learn, great to see.”
In 2019, he ended his season after losing in the second round of the Rolex Paris Masters, on 30 October, and he's feeling reinvigorated for his 16th year on the ATP Tour.
“I'm entering this season with a fresh mind. Had a good time off at the end of the season, practised well and definitely here playing good. [I'm] just enjoying myself on the court and battling it out,” Cilic said.
Cilic will next meet another player who can take the racquet out of your hands in 32nd seed Milos Raonic. It will be a matchup of former World No. 3s looking to jumpstart their careers with a quarter-final showing Down Under. The Croatian, despite having played back-to-back five-set matches, likes his chances.
“I'll be okay. We were lucky with the weather there. We didn't get too crazy hot days. It was definitely easier to play with that,” Cilic said. “I'll be for sure ready for the next one.”