After a year of triumph and disaster, Marin Cilic must define himself

by: Steve Flink | November 27, 2018

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WATCH—Marin Cilic clinches the Davis Cup for Croatia

 

Watching Marin Cilic over the past weekend as he led Croatia to a well deserved triumph in the Davis Cup, I found myself wondering if the man will ever do himself full justice as a tennis player of the front rank. Despite his two impressive singles victories on indoor clay in Lille that were instrumental in leading his country past France, I remain perplexed by Cilic’s inability to perform up to his highest standards more frequently.

Cilic ended his 2018 campaign stylishly and forthrightly by not losing a set against either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Lucas Pouille in his two crucial assignments. The latter win sealed it all for Croatia as they came through in a difficult setting, observed by doggedly partisan French fans. Cilic was the central figure in the proceedings, and he knew that Croatia was counting on him to be impenetrable all the way through, to never let his guard down, to take matters almost entirely into his own hands and get the job done unflinchingly.

He did just that, and his task now is to turn his end of season heroics into a springboard toward a stirring start to 2019. I wish I could say I am convinced he will realize that goal, but, frankly, that is not the case.

Let me explain why I feel that way. In the late summer of 2014, Cilic came to the US Open in New York in search of something substantial, knowing full well that few learned observers believed he had much of a chance to win the last major of that season. But in surviving a debilitating five set, fourth-round skirmish with Gilles Simon, one of the sport’s perpetual pests, Cilic found the brand of tennis he had longed to play throughout his career. Simon, after all, can be the most exasperating of foes because he is often a virtual ball machine, endlessly extending points with extraordinary control and willpower.

Once Cilic moved past the enterprising Simon, the Croatian hit his stride in every conceivable way. Down the stretch, he ousted Tomas Berdych, Roger Federer and Kei Nishikori without the loss of a set. He was in the zone, hitting out freely off both sides, serving with immense power and uncanny precision, and returning with an unrelenting authority he had lacked in the past.

The win over Federer in the penultimate round was particularly impressive. Remember that Federer walked on court for his semifinal against Cilic after Nishikori had stunned Novak Djokovic in the opening match of the day. Federer had narrowly lost the Wimbledon final earlier in the summer to Djokovic in five gripping sets. The prevailing feeling among the experts was that the Swiss was going to collect his sixth US Open crown. He would topple Cilic and handle Nishikori, and that would be that.

Yet Cilic was unwilling to accept that sense of inevitability. Despite approaching his appointment against Federer with a 0-5 career head to head record, he played the match of his career, crushing the Swiss Maestro, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. Cilic lost his serve only once, won 87 percent of his first serve points, and blasted Federer off the court with the extreme potency of his shotmaking and his devastatingly potent and accurate serve. His performance against Nishikori was nearly as breathtaking. At nearly 26, Cilic had arrived at last as a major champion. There was a growing feeling that his first Grand Slam title would not be his last.

And yet, while Cilic has put himself back in a position to win more majors and add to his stature in the process, he has not crossed over into that territory. He remains enigmatic in so many ways, tightening up considerably at critical junctures in big battles, selling himself short despite his capacity to control the climate of his most important matches. In my view, Cilic has been a thorough professional giving the game everything he has to offer, but his insecurities have lingered.

This is not to say that he has not maintained a place near he top of his profession, because he surely has. Cilic concluded his 2014 breakthrough season at No. 9 in the world. He slipped to No. 13 at the end of 2015, but finished 2016 and 2017 at No. 6 in the world before ending this year at No. 7. That record is not to be dismissed, and it is a credit to his Cilic’s dedication and craftsmanship that he has kept himself very much in the forefront of the sport.

Moreover, Cilic has gone to two more finals at the majors since his triumphant US Open journey four years ago. The 6’6” Croatian made it to the Wimbledon final in 2017 and faced Federer, losing in straight sets while hindered by an ankle injury. This year, he confronted Federer again in the Australian Open final, and acquitted himself remarkably well to push the match into a fifth set.

In fact, Cilic had been down two sets to one and 3-1 in the fourth, but he captured five games in a row and then had two break points in the opening game of the fifth set. He missed what should have been a manageable return of serve on one of those chances, and soon Federer held on, taking the final set 6-1 for his 20th major title. It was a job well done by Federer, and a gallant if uneven effort from Cilic in defeat.

Losing to Federer in the crunch is understandable, although Cilic should have closed out the Swiss when they collided in a 2016 quarterfinal on the Centre Court. He led two sets to love and had two match points in the fourth set, but did not hold his nerve and suffered a bruising five set defeat. Losing that way to Federer, however, can be justified when one considers the man’s hard earned lofty reputation and supreme match playing prowess.

What is more troublesome is that Cilic has been so vulnerable against lesser opposition. All year long in 2018, his mental toughness came into question as leads evaporated and inexplicable losses mounted. A deeply unsettling setback for Cilic came at Wimbledon, not long after he had bravely saved a match point and recovered from 1-4 in the second set tie-break to defeat Novak Djokovic, 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-3, in the final at Queen’s Club. But Cilic squandered a two-sets-to-love lead against world No. 82 Guido Pella, falling 3-6, 1-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3), 7-5 at the world’s premier tournament in the second round.

Pella had no business beating Cilic on the lawns of the All England Club, but somehow he did. At the US Open, Cilic made it into the quarterfinals and was taking Nishikori apart, establishing a 6-2, 4-2 lead and looking unstoppable. But eventually he was ousted by the perspicacious Japanese stylist in five sets.

There would be more instances of his frailty. Cilic faced Sam Querrey in a Davis Cup semifinal contest between Croatia and the United States on the weekend after the US Open. He won the first set and led 6-1 in the second set tie-break, only to lose that encounter in four sets.

To be sure, Cilic still had a celebratory year on a number of levels, winning 44 of 64 matches and garnering $5,187,148 in prize money. He made his presence known in all kinds of places, playing heroically in leading Croatia to a second triumph in the Davis Cup, and their first since 2005. He must be commended for willingly taking on the responsibility of the leading role on the team, and carrying his nation inexorably to victory.

The hope here is that Cilic makes amends over the next few years by closing out accounts that are well within his grasp, trusting himself more when the stakes are highest, and securing another victory at a Grand Slam tournament. Cilic was indispensable in propelling Croatia to their Davis Cup win, and it ranks among his finest hours. He dealt honorably with the vociferous French crowds who yearned for him to fail, which made his success all the more remarkable.

But I remain a skeptic. Nevertheless, despite my doubts that Cilic will break some of his old habits and become mentally tougher, regardless of his fragility as a competitor on so many auspicious occasions, he is such a commendable individual—and so unwavering in pursuit of his foremost goals—that I sincerely hope he proves me wrong. This much is certain: one way or another, Marin Cilic will fully define himself in the coming years.

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