Marin Cilic's Road Back To 'Perfect Tennis'
If you said Marin Cilic’s 2018 season was one of the best of his career, there would be little room for arguing otherwise. The Croat, who is the No. 14 seed at this week’s Coupe Rogers, reached a career-high No. 3 in the ATP Rankings, advanced to his third Grand Slam final at the Australian Open, claimed an ATP 500 title at the Fever-Tree Championships, qualified for the Nitto ATP Finals and led Croatia to the Davis Cup title.
But the 30-year-old struggled to maintain his momentum. He is currently World No. 16, which is nothing to sniff at, but Cilic has not made it past the quarter-finals in 12 tournaments, dropping from the Top 15 for the first time since August 2014.
“My first six months were not great. I felt just a bit drained from the season before, finishing late, it was very emotional with the Davis Cup, winning it in 2018,” Cilic told ATPTour.com. “We put a lot of emotions into that and just maybe my body felt a little bit tired from everything.”
A knee injury hindered him at the Australian Open, and also kept him out of the ATP 500 event at Rotterdam in February, which made getting the season rolling even more difficult. But Cilic is showing signs of progress, ousting in-form #NextGenATP star Felix Auger-Aliassime at the Citi Open before dropping a tight two-setter against Daniil Medvedev, who later made the final.
“Now I’m feeling really good. I had some time off back at home, enjoyed the Croatian coast [after Wimbledon], enjoyed my time and practised really well. I just felt I played quite good tennis in Washington and I’m hoping I can continue this really good throughout the summer.”
Cilic has finished inside the year-end Top 10 of the ATP Rankings in four of the past five years, so there was never a question of what the Croat is capable of. But perhaps some R&R and an additional voice in his corner will spur a turnaround.
The veteran began a trial period with former World No. 6 and 15-time ATP Tour champion Wayne Ferreira during the grass-court season. And the South African is not concerned about his charge ever finding his top level again.
“It’s not an issue that he’s going to get it back. The only difficulty is that the lower his [ATP] Ranking is, the harder your draw is, so you have to beat a lot better players earlier on,” Ferreira told ATPTour.com. “You have to beat better guys more regularly. He’ll get it back, he just needs to build on that. After last week, this will be a telling week. If he plays the same way as he did last week, then he’s back on. And he’ll be absolutely fine. Then it’s just having those wins and getting his Ranking back up and hopefully getting the Ranking to the level to where the matches are a little bit easier for him in earlier rounds.”
Ferreira has not been in the coaching game on the ATP Tour before. In fact, this is his first job working with a professional since retiring almost 15 years ago. But Cilic’s agent gave him a call ‘out of the blue’, and they’ve been off ever since, on a trial at least through the US Open. While there are some small things Ferreira is tinkering with in the Croat’s game, he says there is truly one key: confidence.
“He’s struggling a little bit confidence-wise. He hasn’t had the best year of results, so the first thing is trying to get him out of a little bit of a slump, making himself feel good, and from there building on some other things to improve,” Ferreira said. “I think he did a great job last week. I was very impressed with how he played. It was very positive again and he was doing the right things. But at the same time we’ve been working on a few things like on the serve and with a couple of things on the groundstrokes to try to help as well. You’ve always got to keep thinking about things to improve as well. So it’s been good, it’s been a good time. But the initial thing is getting him over the confidence thing.”
It’s a normal problem to have, though. No player is perfect, after all.
“Losing your confidence, everybody has it. It’s the toughest thing in a way because there isn’t really a set trigger that gets you out of it. Winning matches is really what it comes down to, but if you’re feeling nervous and playing tight, sometimes it doesn’t always happen,” Ferreira said. “But it’s also one of those things that doesn’t take a lot to turn around as well. It’s just finding that happy medium somewhere. For him it was more just playing a few more matches in a row, that was helpful. But when the matches are tighter, playing the big points well, it’s a confidence thing.”
One of the things the Cilic camp has been focussing on is his first-serve percentage. Ferreira feels that when Cilic lands his first delivery, he can win a lot of ‘free points’, get through his service games more easily, and build more confidence that way as well. In addition to his Croatian holiday, Cilic also spent a week where Ferreira lives — in Hilton Head — to get to know one another even better and continue working on his game.
“It’s been so far really positive in every sense. Wayne is a great guy, really down to earth and a very, very smart person as well. He had an amazing career,” Cilic said. “The way he played, I admired it a lot. He was a hard worker on court and he brings that every single time when I’m on the court, so it’s just a joy to work with him and hopefully we can have a really long relationship, and an extremely successful one, too.”
Ferreira says since he hasn’t been travelling the Tour, he has been keen to pay close attention to all the players, practices and so on. And with what he sees in Cilic, he is plenty confident that things will move in the right direction.
“He strikes the ball so impressively well. It’s so clean and so hard, he is very solid everywhere. There’s no weakness in his game at all. He’s very strong mentally. Okay, he struggled a little bit on the confidence, but he’s very focussed. His groundstrokes are great. He has the ability to beat anybody,” Ferreira said. “He has the ability to come out and just play awesome, perfect tennis.”
Even if his ATP Ranking has slightly dipped, as soon as Cilic gathers momentum, that will be a scary thought for the rest of the ATP Tour.