Juan Martin del Potro looked happy to see Marin Cilic at the end of their match today in Paris. He looked happy to beat him, too, 6-4, 7-6 (3). The tall Croat and the even taller Argentine, who were born five days apart 25 years ago, were junior rivals who grew up in the game together. The last few months have seen their fates diverge wildly; del Potro has played some of the best tennis of his career, while Cilic has spent his time fighting a nine-month doping suspension by the ITF. This week Cilic finally had that suspension reduced to time served. He made his first appearance since withdrawing from Wimbledon in June.
Cilic said he felt like he had a new lease on life, and in his two matches in Paris there were moments when he played like it. He hit 19 aces against del Potro, and was more aggressive than normal from the baseline. Cilic hit 38 winners and made 49 errors, compared to just 16 and 15 of each from del Potro, who is typically the bigger hitter of the two. But in the end, at the important moments, the same troubles plagued Cilic that have always plagued him. Most prominent is his overlong, inconsistent forehand, which he missed with regularity. More generally, though, Cilic lacks a rock-solidly reliable kill shot. With del Potro serving at 5-6, 15-30 in the second set, Cilic worked the rally in his favor only to overcook an easy forehand wide. Del Potro held. At 1-2 in the subsequent tiebreaker, Cilic again took the offensive, only to lose the point by sending a routine overhead long. Cilic still can’t quite finish what he starts.
As for del Potro, he was testy at times, but his core, calm confidence in himself never seemed to waver. Why would it? He came into this match with a 7-2 record against Cilic, and with two tournament wins under his belt this fall. Del Potro was content to rally, keep the ball well within the lines, and rely on his serve to get him out of any jams. He won 80 percent of points on his first serve, 65 on his second, and he saved all four break points that he faced.
We often ask if del Potro is “ready to take the next step.” By that we mean: Can he win a Slam? What we should be asking is: Can he win a Masters event? Del Potro, after all, has won the former, but never the latter. Champions in tennis win tournaments, as he did in Basel last week, and then they keep winning. Del Potro did that today as well. How long can his roll last? Can he do what the Big 4 have done, and make it a habit, an expectation? We’ll find out more when he faces Grigor Dimitrov next. It's a good sign for Del Potro that a loss at this stage, to almost any opponent, would come as a big surprise.