Maybe it’s just that tennis is such an intimate, up-close kind of game, but those who play it at a high level tend to make strong, satisfying, lasting impressions. Often, a pro’s style is reflected in his or her personality (or is the personality reflected in the style?). Perhaps I’ve just been conditioned, but it’s hard to envision Rafael Nadal playing like Roger Federer, or vice versa. Or Kevin Anderson playing like Bernard Tomic.
Along those lines, is there a stronger marriage of game and personality than what we see in Fabio Fognini, or Jerzy Janowicz? Those players send very strong signals, while others send milder ones. Novak Djokovic, for example, is a very difficult read in that department. He’s part grinder, part shotmaker. Not quite elegant in a Federer-esque way, nor conspicuously earthy in the manner of Nadal.
But the interesting thing isn’t really how we see these people, it’s that we have such strong impressions of them, which in turn helps explain why we form such powerful opinions about them. Tennis is a game that demands that you play favorites and exercise your prejudices, even when they’re silly or insupportable. If you don’t believe me, just check out the comments section in any of my posts about rivals.
It isn’t noteworthy when a pro creates a strong impression; in fact, the notable thing is when one does not. And that’s what brings me to Marin Cilic. I find this 25-year-old Croatian one of the most baffling players on either tour. I can’t quite figure him out, even to my own satisfaction (never mind nailing him down in prose for others).
Is Cilic an unrealized Grand Slam champion, or just another talented player riding the ups and downs of life in the Top 20? Is he a drug cheat, or a victim of an overzealous anti-doping establishment that was looking to take a big scalp (a convoluted tale I won’t go into here)? Is he an all-court player or a baselined? A strong competitor or, under that calm and upright exterior, a head case? A warrior or a natural born misfit?
Is Cilic one of the top two or three Grand Slam contenders among those players who have yet to win one, or someone whose chances of winning a major diminish in direct proportion to how close he comes to achieving it?
These are questions I don’t feel I can answer, despite having watched Cilic for years. I’m not even tempted to fake it. And I don’t think it’s just because I’m deficient. I sense it’s also because there's something amorphous about this guy, something unperceived or perhaps even missing that keeps me from feeling like I have a handle on him.
The one thing upon which everyone seems to agree is that Cilic is a really nice guy. As Nadal said, when Cilic returned from his somewhat controversial doping suspension at the Paris Masters, “He’s a good guy and a great player. I don’t know what happened, but if he’s back it’s because it’s fair that he’s back. That’s all. Happy for that.”
I’ve sat and talked with Cilic a few times, and came away with the same “good guy” impression. He’s quiet and seems thoughtful. He speaks in measured tones and weighs his words. Ask him a tough question and he seems to make a conscious—and not always easy—effort to give you a respectable answer. The big question in my own mind has always been, “So why hasn’t this guy been more of a force in the game?”
That, too, adds to this mystery that is Marin Cilic.
Could it be that he’s too thoughtful? Too nice a guy? Has he come up short because there’s something lacking in his game? Did he miss out on some vital, developmental step? Are his coaches detriments, hindering rather than helping him overcome whatever it is that’s holding him back? Could it be as simple as this: Not every really good player is destined to win a Grand Slam title, never mind a pile of them.
These are the things Cilic makes me think about. These are the things for which there are only a few clear answers.
In the big picture, of course, Cilic is a wildly successful player. Now ranked No. 37, he‘s been to a Grand Slam semifinal (2010 Australian Open) and the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open twice. He’s been ranked as high as No. 9 (February 2010), although he went into a tailspin soon thereafter and fell out of the Top 20 about a year later.
One of Cilic’s obvious shortcomings is his relatively poor showing against those who ought to be considered his peers, the ATP Top 10. He’s 14-40 against those elites, and a paltry 2-22 against the quartet of Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Andy Murray (he has one win over Nadal and one over Murray).
Although Cilic was born at a painful and troubled time in Bosnia-Herzegovena, he was able to develop his talent from an early age. Goran Ivanisevic, a fellow countryman and Wimbledon champion, spotted Cilic and encouraged him to move to San Remo, Italy. There, Ivanisevic’s former mentor, Bob Brett, took Cilic under his wing.
I don’t know a better coach than Brett, who’s one of the more under-appreciated coaches of our era (he also worked with, among others, Boris Becker, Andres Gomez, and Andrei Medvedev). While he’s no Svengali, Brett has always tried to instill in his charges the idea that the same things that help or hurt someone in life are the ones that shape a tennis career. It’s hard to imagine a better foundation for Cilic, yet if he’s bought into Brett’s program, he hasn’t been commensurately rewarded.
It isn’t like Cilic has glaring weaknesses in his game, either. He’s a strapping 6’6”, with an incredibly clean game based on an atomic serve and really clean, relatively flat groundstrokes. Cilic isn’t the greatest of movers, but he has just the right kinds of weapons to compensate for that, starting with the sheer physical ability to impose the pace and tone of a match.
Cilic is solid and physical in the same way as Juan Martin del Potro, yet he hasn’t had as many resonant wins. Yet he’s been to 17 finals, and won more than he’s lost (9-8). By contrast, ATP No. 7 (and perennial top-tenner) Tomas Berdych has been to only two more finals, has won the same number of titles, and is almost exactly three years older.
All of this suggests that Cilic’s major problems are related to his self-belief, perhaps in combination with an inability to produce his best tennis when it’s most needed. That isn’t a rare shortcoming by any means on the ATP tour, but it is in a player with as much talent and such a clearly defined game. Quiet to the point of appearing a bit depressed, Cilic may also have trouble mustering the requisite degree of motivation to be a consistent winner.
This week in Sydney, Cilic, seeded seventh, struggled through three sets to vanquish qualifier Jan-Lennard Struff, but then lost in desultory fashion—6-3, 6-4—in the second round to Denis Istomin. True, it’s just the first week of the year, but Cilic has already shown that it’s never too early to baffle those who look at him and wonder just where he fits into today’s game.