Tennis is awash in dramatic moments, but this one was different. Very different.
It occurred during what many consider the peak moment of the tennis year, the Wimbledon final. And the author and subject of the moment was not running, jumping, winning or losing a point. He was sitting in a chair.
Marin Cilic, his face half-buried in a towel, was trying to stem the flow of tears. As it become evident that something was wrong, a murmur ran through the crowd. Legions of television viewers around the world suddenly began to feel uncomfortable. They didn’t exactly know what they were watching, but they were pretty sure they shouldn’t have been seeing it.
Cilic was in the throes of an anxiety attack. The way Roger Federer was busy running away with the match, that might have been understandable. But it slowly became evident that Cilic was suffering physical pain, from blisters deep under the calloused sole of his left foot.
Sitting there, his vision blurred by tears, a trainer going through the motions of fixing a condition that was, for the time being, irreparable, Cilic reflected bitterly on all the hard work he had put in to reach this match. The long hours on the practice court, all that time in the gym. All the things just to get your body ready for everything—then this, he thought.
“It didn't hurt so much that it was putting me in tears,” Cilic said after Federer rolled to a straight-sets win. “It was just that feeling that I wasn't able to give the best.”
WATCH—Match point from Cilic's win over Novak Djokovic in the Queen's Club final:
“The best” is something Cilic has been reaching for through his entire career. He’s been single-minded, pure of intent. At the 2014 US Open, he was the best, winning his first and only Grand Slam singles title over fellow first-time major finalist Kei Nishikori. While he’s yet to scale those heights again, the 6’6” Cilic has become a steadily growing menace to his peers. Just months after that painful Wimbledon loss last July, he battled Federer on even terms through four sets of a blister-free, entertaining Australian Open final. But after forcing a decider with inspired play, he lost the plot in a lopsided fifth set.
“Marin is gentlemanly, he’s very disciplined,” says Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo. “Everyone seems to love the guy, and felt terrible for him at Wimbledon last year. But in the Australian Open final he just kind of petered out in the fifth set. Marin’s had some disappointing finals. Maybe that’s why he isn’t so high on the radar.”
Whatever the reason, Cilic seems not to care about his Q score. He is present on social media only for professional purposes. Kristina Milkovic, a psychologist who’s been his partner for nearly a decade, has no such presence at all, and does not give interviews.
“Having more attention or not, I don’t mind,” the 29-year old Croatian told the New York Times in Australia. “I’m still doing the same things. Still, I have to be focused with my own team to get better every single day, to do the things I need to do.”
Cilic was about five when the Bosnian war broke out in 1992. At about the time it ended, he was already showing facility in tennis—so much so that he caught the eye of former Wimbledon champ and Croatian idol, Goran Ivanisevic.
Ivanisevic thought Cilic might be better able to develop his talent far from his war-torn homeland of Bosnia-Herzegovina, so he arranged for Cilic to move to San Remo, Italy. There, Cilic came under the tutelage of Australian coach Bob Brett, himself once a protégé of renowned Australian Open Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman.
Brett had guided string of champions including Andres Gomez, Boris Becker and Ivanisevic, to spectacular success. Brett, who has always incorporated character building into his coaching philosophy, developed the big game of the raw-boned Cilic as well as his work ethic and personality. He remains close to his former charge, and became a fixture at Cilic’s recent matches at the Australian Open.
“Our relationship was lasting over nine years, and Bob has taught me a lot about tennis, about tennis life. I am the player that I am today also because of him,” Cilic said in Melbourne. “It was great to see him again over here, watching and supporting me.”
Cilic’s big game, based on a whopper of a serve and a stinging, flat forehand—along with very good movement for a man of his size—took him pretty far, fairly fast. He turned pro at 17 in 2005, played his first Grand Slam tournament in 2007, and was just two spots outside the Top 20 by the end of 2008.
While his ascent continued, Cilic also hit a glass ceiling. He won a lot of matches, but often had trouble beating the elite players who were his notional peers, those in or near the Top 10. Up to 2014, Cilic was a tepid 14-40 against those elites, and he was a paltry 2-22 against the Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.
The game-changer in Cilic’s career may have been, of all things, a 2013 doping suspension that, due to a successful appeal, was reduced to four months ending in late October (the appeals court accepted the defense that Cilic had ingested the banned substance inadvertently). Notably, Cilic did not lose the respect of his peers. As Nadal said upon his rival’s return, “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.”
The extended break had a transformative effect on Cilic.
“The time off helped him,” Carillo said. “It was about halfway through career. Maybe it made him ask himself, ‘What am I trying do do? Do I have a major in me?”
At the same time, Cilic had been working during his layoff with Ivanisevic and ultimately hired him as his coach. The partnership would bear fruit at US Open. Cilic wasn’t quite 26 years old. His future looked bright, not least because he seemed so level-headed and diligent.
“Marin has always been a self-starter,” says Paul Annacone, the former coach of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer and now a Tennis Channel analyst. “He’s a humble, diligent guy who gets a lot of respect in the locker room.”
WATCH—Clip from Strokes of Genius featuring Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal:
The further big wins that some predicted for Cilic after his US Open triumph have yet to materialize. For one thing, the punishing power began to tell on Cilic’s body. He suffered an arm injury in the fall of 2014, and a tender shoulder kept Cilic sidelined for more than two months at the start of the following year. In fairness, the Big Four were also at or near the zenith of their collective powers.
But there’s something else, a lingering flaw that Cilic has never been able to banish. He doesn’t hold up well under the pressure of being the favorite. His standing against Top 10 opponents has improved to a more palatable 29-71 (as of mid-April), and he achieved a career-high ranking of No. 3 in January. Yet Cilic too often wilts when it’s time to put the hammer down on other quality players—despite being, in Annacone’s words, “The guy none of the big players like to see across the net, not with those weapons, not when he trusts himself.”
In 2016, Cilic had match points on Federer in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. He failed to convert. Last fall, at the ATP World Tour Finals, in his first two matches, Cilic held substantial leads on Alexander Zverev and Jack Sock. He lost both matches. Federer told Sky Sports that losses like that make an impression in the locker room. “You lose a little bit the respect of the guys,” he said.
According to Annacone, the key is Cilic’s mindset. “When he feels he’s supposed to win, he can get in trouble. He’s at his best when he can freely swing away because the expectations and pressure are lower.”
When Cilic gets nervous, Annacone says, he dials back that potentially big second serve. His groundstrokes become a little more erratic. He experiences the woes familiar to everyone who has ever choked during a match. It can be difficult for a mature player to conquer that form of anxiety.
Cilic is aware of his shortcomings but he seems committed to overcoming them by attaining a higher level of play—an ongoing quest that helps explain why he’s made so many coaching changes. He parted with Ivanisevic in August 2016, and then also split with Jonas Bjorkman after just 16 months, during which Cilic won his first (and only) Masters 1000 tournament in addition to Wimbledon, in Cincinnati.
“It just may be that he gets what he needs out of a coach, they do the work, then he incorporates the stuff and self-motivates from there,” Annacone said. “Maybe he just doesn’t want to be responsible for another person.”
It may also be that this humble, shy, striver wants to find the last piece of the puzzle, the one that would make him a multiple Grand Slam winner, on his own. He may want to do it the old-fashioned way, through blood, sweat—and a few tears.
A LANDMARK DOCUMENTARY DURING THE MOST PRESTIGIOUS EVENT IN SPORTS, CELEBRATING THE UNPARALLELED FEDERER-NADAL RIVALRY AND 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE GREATEST MATCH EVER PLAYED.
In association with All England Lawn & Tennis Club, Rock Paper Scissors Entertainment and Amblin Television. Directed by Andrew Douglas.