Coachable Croat

by: Steve Tignor | January 13, 2009

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McIn the mid-80s, as a teenager, I attended a summer boys’ tennis camp outside of Pittsburgh. At the end of each day, the camp director liked to get up in front of us so he could rant and rave about all the things we were doing wrong. Looking back, I’m not sure why he cared or felt the need to scream at 30 kids he’d never met before, but this was the dawn of the Bollettieri era, when every junior tennis coach turned into Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket (released my senior year in high school). According to this guy in Pittsburgh, one of the many major malfunctions of all of us Middle States maggots was that, after we missed a ball, he’d see us doing a shadow practice stroke of that shot. This was fine to do in practice, but it should never, under any circumstances, be done in a match. When you’re competing, you don’t have time to worry about your technique—it’s either ready on game-day or it isn’t. The only thing you should be thinking about is finding a way to win. And if he caught any of us ladies practicing a shadow stroke again….

He got his point across, because it’s one of the few pieces of advice I remember from that camp, or any other camp. I don’t think I ever did a practice stroke again without a tinge of guilt. And I’ve only very rarely seen a pro perform one during a match. Which is what made it all the more noticeable that Somdev Devvarman was doing one after virtually every point in his final against Marin Cilic in Chennai on Sunday. It made it hard for me to believe he could win. He didn’t.

We already know Devvarman, despite this outstanding result, isn’t heading toward the Top 10 anytime soon, or ever. He’s 23, played lots of college ball in the U.S., came into the event ranked No. 202, and is something less than 6-feet tall—he’s listed at 5-11, but that seems generous. What it did highlight for me, though, was the remarkable maturity of his opponent, Cilic. The Croat is three years younger than Devvarman, but he plays like a hardened veteran by comparison.

Cilic reached the semis of this fairly minor event in 2008, so this time he’s started off the season with a two-round improvement. That kind of steady if unspectacular growth is what we might expect from him in the near future. As tall and rangy and powerful and serious as he is, Cilic doesn’t stun you with his talent. He can’t change directions with the ball from anywhere, à la Novak Djokovic, and he can’t slice and dice or transition forward easily, à la Andy Murray. In fact, Cilic has some obvious flaws in his forehand; it begins with a busy, elaborate takeback and continues with a laid-back wrist and a slapping motion as he makes contact. He tends to catch the ball late when he goes down the line, which makes the shot less than totally reliable as a rally stroke or if he’s rushed.

On the other hand, when he has time, Cilic gets all of his forehand. He’s particularly deadly crosscourt when he’s moving forward. The same goes for his backhand, which is smoother, though only slightly more economical. But what Cilic really did well in winning two close sets against Devvarman was use his game well at the right times. On big points, he found a way put himself in a position to maximize his strokes. For instance, he’d suddenly change directions and go down the line with a backhand approach—while he can’t do this nonstop, he mixes directions up when he needs to. Or he’d take one big step forehand before hitting his crosscourt backhand and surprise Devvarman by taking the ball a split-second earlier. Or he’d put on the afterburners and track down a drop shot with surprising ease before putting it away—Cilic is quick when he needs to be, and his 6-foot-6 worth of length allows him to play more defense than most other big guys. Or, if all else failed, he’d step around a forehand and belt a blatant inside-out winner that would send his opponent staggering backwards. This is how Cilic played the biggest point of all, match point in the second-set tiebreaker.

Most telling was the way Cilic handled the half-dozen break points he faced in the first set. This was his strategy: Take a little extra time to get settled, then unload on an unreturnable first ball. If this somehow failed, his heavy second serve was enough to do the job. There was no big change in Cilic's demeanor before or after these points, just a slight uptick of concentration. It was enough. It wasn’t too much.

But it didn’t always work. Cilic served for the match at 5-3; there was no reason to believe he would do anything but hold. But he immediately sent two backhands sailing long, was broken, and soon found himself at 5-5, serving at 15-40, with a stadium of Devvarman fans noisily rooting against him. That's when Cilic began to play his most fearless tennis. He saved a break point with an inside-out forehand winner and dictated play to win the last three points of the tiebreaker. While Cilic did plainly tighten up when he served for the title, he also never stood back and hoped his opponent would miss on a crucial point.

I’ve always heard that Cilic, the newest member of the Top 20 and a student of Bob Brett’s, is well-coached and analytical. Maybe he met my old drill sergeant from the Burgh somewhere along the way. After all, in Chennai it was Devvarman who was left to shadow his strokes and perfect his imaginary technique, while Cilic just found a way to win with the shots he had.

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