Cilic: The Man No One Wants To Face In London
Combine a massive serve with gargantuan groundstrokes, sound volleys and an ability to produce your best on the biggest occasions, and what do you have? In Marin Cilic, someone none of the other seven competitors at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals will enjoy seeing on the other side of the net.
This is the second time Cilic has qualified for the season-ending tournament. On his debut in 2014 – the same year he won his first and, to date, only Grand Slam title at the US Open – he lost all three of his group matches in London, hampered by a niggling arm injury, and he left hugely disappointed, determined to return.
Motivation, then, will be high for the 28 year old, who booked his spot thanks to a strong second half of the season, which included a first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title, in Cincinnati in August, where he beat Andy Murray in the final, and then a first ATP World Tour Masters 500 title, in Basel last month. Just a few days ago he registered his first victory over Novak Djokovic to make the semi-finals of the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament in Paris. With a Davis Cup final against Argentina to come the week after London, this could be a big month for a man who, in many ways, has underachieved, given the huge talent he possesses.
When he won his US Open title, blowing away Roger Federer in the semi-finals and then outplaying Kei Nishikori in the final, there were many who saw his win as a changing of the guard. Seemingly nerveless in the latter stages in New York, he had the power to hit through the very best and the game to prosper. But, for a number of reasons, Cilic found it tough to reproduce that standard of play on a consistent basis.
“Even last year I was having some good tournaments but searching still for my game,” Cilic has said, not the first player to find it difficult to cope with the increased expectations that often follow a first Grand Slam win. “The first part of 2015, I missed because of injury. I was a little bit up and down with the game, trying to find that kind of a balance that I had at the US Open and that I had that second part of 2014 when I played really, really good tennis, the tennis that I need to play.
“Since then, I was on and off with that kind of style, so I feel just now, the last few months, that I found myself in a really good position and feeling good on the court.”
Temperamental as a junior, Cilic is calmer on court these days and softly-spoken, thoughtful and sensitive, which is not always the ideal combination for a tennis player for whom raw aggression is often a necessity. “I’m trying to be obviously focused on what I have to do on the court,” he said of his even-tempered disposition. “I see also some guys that show more emotions, that are more into fan communication. Obviously that’s a good thing, as we need to have different kinds of players.”
Until he won Cincinnati in August, Cilic had never made it beyond the quarter-finals of an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event. His win over Murray gave him great confidence, as did his dominant performance in Basel.
It is almost seven years since Cilic first came to general attention, when he reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open. Hovering around the Top 20 for a few years, he flattered to deceive for a while, with outstanding performances accompanied by poor losses and it wasn’t until he joined forces with a Croatian hero, Goran Ivanisevic, that he really figured himself out. The pair began working together midway through 2013 and the following year, they peaked with Cilic’s US Open triumph.
In what was something of a surprise, the pair split midway through this year, with Cilic hiring Sweden’s Jonas Bjorkman, the former World No. 4 who enjoyed a successful stint in Murray’s coaching team last year. Together, the two men have been working on helping Cilic make even more of his monstrous serve by improving his understanding of how to play at the net.
“The idea in the background was to try to find somebody who could help me with my transition from the baseline to the net,” said Cilic. “I felt that he might be really the person that could help me the most with that, as he was great in singles and also great in doubles and obviously knows the game really well.”
One of his most memorable encounters of the season was a five-set thriller in his Wimbledon quarter-final against Federer. “I was close there with Federer and I played great at Wimbledon,” he said. “Had three match points, didn’t convert on those. But I feel that when I’m playing well and playing the right way, that definitely the [big serving] game is always going to give me a chance and that I am always going to have good results with that.”
And Cilic is probably at his best indoors – eight of his 16 titles have come under a roof. If his serve functions as it can then, together with his improving net game, he will be a huge danger to his rivals this week.