Finishing School

Thursday, March 28, 2013 /by

MIAMI, Fla.—Marin Cilic is a conspicuously talented player, a tall, lean, sinewy Croatian with a steam hammer forehand, rocketing serve, and a sweet gift for the volley. Just why the diffident 24-year old held just a temporary visa when he landed in the top 10 (issued in February of 2010, it expired in April of the same year) is a mystery that might lead you to look at a Tomas Berdych or Juan Martin del Potro and ask, “What’s he got that Marin ain’t got?”

It’s a good question, and a fair one. And it leads, as such ruminations always do, far beyond the polyester strings or sweat-soaked grip to the chambers of the heart and the recesses of the mind. It was impossible not to mull over this question as Cilic was absorbing a beating administered by Andy Murray at the Sony Open. Murray won the match, 6-4, 6-3. Seldom does the loser in so convincing a score line make you want to raise your hand and mutter,  “But wait. . .he’s better than that.”

Ah, Marin. What ails you? Is it some essential timidity that makes you reluctant to assert your game — to grind the face of an opponent under your proverbial boot heel? Is it that you’re only really comfortable and relaxed when you’re settled into a pace that leaves you trailing the front runner by a good twenty yards from start to finish? Do you twitch and hike your shoulders to shift and slough off the load when the pressure is placed on them?

The answer at times seems to be, “all of the above.” That’s why Cilic can play really compelling tennis yet remain outside the circle of light cast by the top 10. Why he can play a game like the final one yesterday, in which crushed the ball as he fended off five match points before succumbing to the sixth and final one, in a perfect illustration of the maxim, “too little, too late.”

If you think I’m being a little hard on Cilic here, you’re in good company. Here’s what Andy Murray said, when I asked him why Cilic isn’t right up there in the scrum with Berdych, del Potro, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga:

“It's important to remember he is quite a bit younger than them.  I think now guys are starting to play better later in their careers, especially the big guys. You know, he's a very, very good player.  He's a tough player.  But if you look at someone like Berdych, he's a very big, strong guy.  Marin has maybe not filled out maybe as someone like Tomas, or even Tsonga just now.  It's just taking guys maybe a little bit longer than it was before to play their best tennis. . . Yeah, he also  had a knee surgery (note: Cilic never had surgery, but he didn’t start in 2012 until Delray Beach because of a bum knee).  That can set you back a little bit, but he's come back very well from it.”

He added, "Marin does everything well.  You know, he has a good serve. He’s one of the better returners on the tour, which you may not expect for a big guy,   but statistically he returns very well.”

Cilic fans may have experienced a flicker of hope when he strolled out into the bright sunshine flooding the Crandon Park stadium wearing a bright red shirt, a common talisman of aggression, extroversion, and even anger. And lo and behold, Cilic thrust his chin forward, puffed out his chest, and held the long first game — and emphatically broke Murray in the next one.

When you have a serve like Cilic’s, securing an early break on a hard court can be jet fuel for your confidence. But instead of consolidating the break, Cilic fell behind 0-40 in no time, and was able to survive only the first of those break points before Murray sliced and diced and out-maneuvered Cilic to break back.

Cilic broke in the next game, too — partly because Murray tried even more touchy-feely stuff. Once again, though, Cilic failed to take advantage of the break. Murray wasn’t about to give Cilic a third invitation to take control; he held his next service game, and then we had nothing better to do than watch some entertaining ball-striking and contemplate the verities, one of which seemed to be that the longer a rally went (and there were some excellent, lengthy ones over the next few games) the more eager Cilic was to finish it. And not in a good way, with a winner, but by reaching for too much.

Came the ninth game, which is often when things get a little interesting. Cilic won the first point, but then served up two double faults and pair of forehand errors. They weren’t forced errors, or born of courage, either. He shanked two successive forehands, and that pretty much settled the issue for the first set.

Cilic’s tendency to rush and over-hit carried over to the second set, when he gave up a break in the first game with a go-for-broke inside-out forehand drive. He apologized for it (sort of) later, while explaining what he thinks is missing from his game these days: Consistent exposure to the top players in late stages of tournaments like this one.  “You have those few balls that you miss, and a few opportunities that you must be right there, to take advantage of. I need to know more what to expect, and to know I can handle it.”

Cilic almost achieved that desired state of enlightenment in the fourth game of the second set, with Murray holding onto his one-break lead. Cilic  gave as good as he got through that seven deuce, four break-point tug-of-war, and Murray knew he was lucky to win it. “He started to play more aggressive. He started trying to come to net and trying to finish some of the points a bit quicker. And he changed his style a little bit. When guys make adjustments during matches, you obviously have to recognize that and do something about it yourself. I think I dealt with that fairly well.”

After a pair of quick holds, Cilic unexpectedly broke down. He botched a serve-and-volley first point and shanked two successive groundstrokes (this time, they were backhands). He was unable to climb out of that 0-40 hole, and Murray jumped to a 5-2 lead. As well as Cilic played after that, it was academic.

So what does Cilic himself feel is missing from his game?

“Once you go back a step, like I did, it becomes more fragile,” he said. “It took me some time to get back on the right track. I feel I’m finally playing some pretty good tennis again. Now I think the biggest thing to help me is to be confident with myself. I know I am trying to push myself in the right direction in tough situations, and not having more doubts about myself, or not feeling like I can't make those shots I need.”

Like many players at every level of this game, Cilic seems to understand that the first opponent that must beat is yourself.

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