Cilic and Wozniacki found out again that the majors are just different

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Both Marin Cilic and Caroline Wozniacki were considered serious contenders at Wimbledon. (Getty Images)

“It’s frustrating because I feel like I could have gone and done something really great here,” Caroline Wozniacki said after losing to Ekaterina Makarova in the second round at Wimbledon on Wednesday.

Wozniacki is usually a player who moves on from her losses quickly; with her jam-packed schedule, there’s always another plane to catch, and another match to play. But she had trouble letting go of this one, or being chivalrous in defeat. The unseeded Makarova, according to Wozniacki, “played above her level” and “got a little lucky” and hit “a lot of lines” and “a lot of crazy shots that were going in.”

“For her to keep up this level,” Wozniacki said, “I would be very surprised if you saw her go far.”

Clearly someone wasn’t happy about going out so early at a major. Which shouldn’t be surprising: Wozniacki was the second seed, she had a 7-1 record against Makarova, and since she won her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open this year, she likely has higher expectations for herself at these events. Wozniacki has never made it past the fourth round at Wimbledon, but this year, for the first time, she came into the tournament knowing that she can go all the way at a major.

On top of that, Wozniacki had just completed an impressively stubborn week of tennis at Eastbourne. There she beat a series of top-tier opponents—Johanna Konta, Ash Barty, Angelique Kerber and Aryna Sabalenka—for the title, and twice she came back from a set down to win. On Wednesday, Wozniacki defended her decision to enter an event that ended two days before Wimbledon began.

“One-hundred percent yes,” Wozniacki said when she was asked if it was wise to play Eastbourne. “I played really well. I got the practice that I needed. The weather was great. The conditions were great. It’s a great tournament. I feel great. My body feels great.”

All of which, obviously, made her loss to Makarova feel not so great.

WATCH—Makarova eliminates Wozniacki at Wimbledon:

By Thursday afternoon, Marin Cilic could relate to Wozniacki’s exasperation. Like her, he had appeared to be in the best form of anyone in his draw. He had won the tune-up at Queen’s the previous week in the most auspicious way imaginable. Down match point to Novak Djokovic in the final, an opponent he had beaten once in 15 tries, Cilic rallied to win in three sets. If there was anything that was going to make the 2017 Wimbledon runner-up believe he could take the final step on Centre Court, it was a victory like that.

“I think it prepared me extremely well just in terms of my confidence. It’s very high,” Cilic said this week of his experience at Queen’s. “I played five quality matches over there.”

Cilic’s confidence was high enough that he could picture himself back in the semis or the final at Wimbledon. Once there, he also thought his experience in last year’s final would help him.

“Psychologically I felt the atmosphere, I felt the pressure as well,” Cilic said of his defeat to Roger Federer in 2017. “I felt like I was dealing with it really, really nicely, and it gave me confidence for this year coming back on grass.”

Many would take issue with Cilic’s description of how he handled the final-Sunday pressure last summer; after all, he lost in straights and at one stage broke down in tears. (He also dealt with a blister.) As of Wednesday afternoon, though, there was no denying that Cilic looked to be in fine form. He won his first round in straight sets, and led Guido Pella by two sets to love when rain began to fall. But what looked to be little more than a delay of the inevitable—Pella had never won a match at Wimbledon before this week—would eventually become Cilic’s undoing.

For some reason, the two players were sent back out for a few minutes on Wednesday night; that was enough for Pella to make some inroads, and to show some doubt in Cilic’s mind. By Thursday morning, the mental tables had turned completely. Pella was sharp, Cilic couldn’t find his forehand, and the Croat suddenly went from sure bet to shock loser. It’s the first time he has gone out before the quarterfinals at Wimbledon since 2013.

WATCH—Match point from Cilic's loss to Pella at Wimbledon:

Is there a common lesson to Wozniacki’s and Cilic’s defeats?

It doesn’t prove that old superstition, that winning a warm-up event means you won’t win the Slam that follows. We’ve seen Murray win at Queen’s, and Federer win at Halle, and both go on to do the same at the Big W. And Ash Barty, who won at Nottingham last week, is safely into the third round at Wimbledon.

What it does show, in case anyone had forgotten, is that the Slams are different, and they’re different for a specific reason. It’s not because they last two weeks instead of one. And it’s not because, on the men’s side, matches are best-of-five instead of best-of-three.

The majors are different because every player—with a few lackadaisical exceptions—comes with everything they have when they play these events. Wozniacki didn’t lose to a player who got lucky or hit a lot of “crazy” shots. In Makarova, she lost to a former Top 10 player who has a history of knocking off high seeds at Slams—just ask Serena Williams, who lost to her at the Australian Open in 2012. Whatever she’s done the rest of the year, Makarova was going to put it out of her mind at Wimbledon and play as if this was the most important match of her season. The same went for Pella. Anywhere else, he might have waved an inner white flag when he fell behind to Cilic; but the prospect of pulling off an upset on No. 1 Court was always going to be motivation enough to keep him going.

“At that point, what can do you?” Wozniacki said of her mindset as she watched Makarova’s winners fly past her. She said she had played as well as she could, but it wasn’t enough.

Venus Williams, a five-time Wimbledon champion, may have answered her question on Wednesday. Asked if she felt like she was playing her best during her second-round win, Venus said it didn’t matter, because it’s “just about winning the match.”

At the Slams, you have to take your opponent’s best, and you have to win anyway.

Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.


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