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Marin Cilic executed his game plan to perfection in downing Andy Murray in the Cincinnati final.

Brain Game: Cilic Serve On Song In Winning Cincy Title

Brain Game explores how Marin Cilic defeated Andy Murray for the Cincinnati title

Marin knew. Andy knew. The crowd even knew, but there was nothing anybody could do to stop Marin Cilic’s wide sliding serve in the deuce court from carving up Andy Murray in the final of the Western and Southern Open on Sunday.

Cilic won 6-4, 7-5, overwhelming Murray with precision serves, power forehands, and a tenacity to keep points short and sweet against the most in-form player on the planet.

Tennis is a game of primary and secondary patterns that are mixed based on the scoreboard and the guessing game of shot location constantly going on inside players’ minds. Primary patterns are the prime movers, run seven or eight times out of ten, while secondary patterns are surprise guerrilla tactics used to confuse the opponent when they get a scent of what’s really happening to them.

Cilic Deuce Court Wide Slider
There was no pattern of play more important for Cilic against Murray than his wide sliding serve in the deuce court. It stretched Murray way off the court to begin the point, creating a huge positioning hole for Cilic to immediately exploit with his forehand.

Murray regularly made contact with his forehand return 6.6 metres (22 feet) from the center of the court, creating an instant hole for Cilic to attack Murray in the vacant ad court, and also behind Murray in the deuce court as the Brit sprinted back hard after the defensive return to stay alive in the point.

Overall, Cilic directed 80 per cent (24/30) of first serves in the deuce court out wide, dining there again and again whenever he needed a point. Of the 24 first serves he hit out wide, he made 15 and won 12.

Of the 12 he won, he served and volleyed four times, highlighting the confidence he had in this specific serve to immediately follow it to the net. Of the other eight points, Murray committed three return errors and Cilic was 5/5 in hitting a forehand as the all-important “Serve +1” groundstroke immediately following the serve. Of those 12, Cilic only played one rally that lasted more than seven shots, showing how much he was able to immediately dictate behind the fearsome delivery. Of the three points Cilic lost behind his wide deuce slider, Murray was on full defence, slicing six of eight shots to barely stay afloat in the point.

At 6-4, 3-3, Murray’s average return speed against Cilic’s first serve was a lowly 48mph. The wide slider in the deuce court had a lot to do with that. Cilic, by comparison, was averaging 64mph with his first serve returns.

Cilic Serve +1 Forehands
Hitting a forehand as the first shot after the serve was also a key tactic for Cilic, completing it 61 per cent (22/36) of the time to stay on top of Murray as the point unfolded. Cilic won 73 per cent (16/22) of his points beginning with a Serve +1 forehand and only 43 per cent (6/14) beginning with a Serve +1 backhand strategy.   

With Cilic leading 6-4, 3-4 on serve, his forehand had done a masterful job of pushing Murray further back behind the baseline than the Brit was comfortable with. When Murray defeated Milos Raonic in the semi-finals, Murray made contact with only 16 per cent of his groundstrokes more than two metres behind the baseline, but that more than doubled that to 35 per cent against Cilic after a set and a half of play.

First Four Shots
Cilic imposed his will all over the court, especially when it came to the key metric of rally length. Sixty percent of points in the match were a maximum of four shots. Cilic won this vital battleground 39-34, won the 5-8 shot rallies 22-19 and lost the long rallies of 10 shots or more 5-4.

Dominating the shorter rallies is proven to be a much better indicator of who will win the match than winning the longer rallies. At the 2015 US Open, the match winner won 90 per cent of the 0-4 shot rallies, 66 per cent of the 5-8 shot rallies, and just 56 per cent of the longer rallies that reached double digits.

Cilic looks in ominous form heading into this year’s US Open - a title he won in 2014. When the 6’6” Croatian is in this vein of form, his game is so big and so powerful that he can blow right through opponents with his massive serve and forehand combination.

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