INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Last year Marin Cilic was, in tennis terms, let out of jail; for the first set here on Wednesday night, he played like a man reveling in his newfound freedom. For the space of 30 minutes, Cilic blew Novak Djokovic off the court. In the first game, Cilic gave us a sign of his sharpness when he surprised Djokovic with a vicious crosscourt forehand. In the next game, Cilic gave us another sign with a rocketed backhand passing shot winner, which led to a break of serve. By the time Djokovic’s next service game came around, Cilic was all over him with his returns; they left Djokovic spinning helplessly in the middle of the court, easy prey for a ground-stroke winner on the next shot. Djokovic, who struggled with his first serve and had trouble keeping his ground strokes from flying in the thin air, never got his teeth into the set. After 19 minutes, hardly time for the fans to sit down, Cilic led 5-0.
The change came, as we knew it eventually would, with Cilic serving at 1-2 in the second. Djokovic had upped his intensity level to start the set, and in this game he began to turn the tide of the rallies in his favor for the first time. A nice drop shot/lob combination took him to 30-30, and a forcing backhand two points later earned him the break. The moment brought Cilic back down the earth, and back to reality. In the first set, his game had an unusually assertive edge, but by the middle of the second that had evaporated, and he was back to his more typical, safer, duller standard of play. That wasn’t going to get it done against this opponent. When Djokovic bore down and broke again early in the third, the match’s early sense of danger and surprise was gone, and the Serb walked off with a 1-6, 6-2, 6-3 win. Still, Cilic gave us a brief glimpse of the game he can produce when he’s in the zone. I’d recommend that he and coach Goran Ivanisevic study a tape of that first set.
This was the third straight flawed performance from Djokovic here. He never clicked with his serve, making just 57 percent of first balls. And his stat line never recovered from that disastrous first set—Djokovic finished with 25 errors and just 13 winners, and he was eight of 14 at the net. He’s been fighting himself as much as his opponents this week, but this was a strong opponent who has been playing well, and a win is a win. Nole, who had solid support from the late-night faithful, will try to get another win against Julien Benneteau in the quarters. After Djokovic's first-round match, I said that with his draw he might not need his best to reach the final. He hasn’t needed it yet.