Top 10 of '18, No. 8: Cilic outlasts De Minaur in US Open third round

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HIGHLIGHTS: Marin Cilic d. Alex de Minaur, US Open third round, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5

 

There was, according to the winner, only one word that could do justice to this year’s third-round US Open epic between Marin Cilic and Alex de Minaur.

“It was an insane atmosphere,” Cilic said after his 4-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 victory over the 19-year-old Australian, who saved seven match points before succumbing. “He was fighting his heart out and it was just an insane match and what a comeback he made.”

Most insane of all, of course, was the finish time: 2:22 A.M., four minutes shy of the Open’s record for early-morning play. Despite the hour, Cilic and De Minaur were hardly alone; a few thousand fans happily stayed with them to the end. It was the fifth day of play in brand-new Louis Armstrong Stadium, but this was the match that officially christened that boxy, 10,000-seat arena. Anyone who was worried about whether the old, rowdy late-night spirit of the Open would live on inside this new court could stop worrying once Cilic and De Minaur had finished.

The match began at 10:30. Over the course of the next four hours, the Croatian and Australian each staged a stirring, stunning comeback. Whether it was the late start, or an unfamiliar—and exceedingly speedy—opponent, Cilic began miserably. The 2014 Open champion was broken five times in his first 10 service games, and dropped the first two sets.

It didn’t help that the player on the other side of the net seemed to be, literally, playing circles around him. Just 19, and looking roughly 12, De Minaur was competing in his first US Open. At 6 feet and 150 pounds, he’s the walking definition of the word “wiry.” How, some fans near me wondered at the start of the match, could a player that rail-thin survive on today’s ultra-physical men’s tour? De Minaur wasted no time providing the answer.

Skidding and sliding across the baseline, spinning 360 degrees to get himself back into rallies, rifling winners from well beyond the doubles alleys, and making fans gasp with his seemingly impossible retrievals, De Minaur was a blur from start to finish. He looked like the second coming of his mentor, Lleyton Hewitt, except that unlike Hewitt, De Minaur is comfortable moving forward and attacking, and appears to have no fear of doing so. His lack of raw, stand-still power forces him to be inventive in all kinds of entertaining ways.

Still, as the match went on, and the clock passed midnight, reality appeared to set in—size, power, and experience matter most on the ATP tour these days, and Cilic had the advantage in all three categories. He leveled at two sets all, went up 5-2 in the fifth, and reached match point five times on De Minaur’s serve in that game. But De Minaur found a way to extricate himself from all five; by the time he held serve with a roar and a fist pump, New York had a new tennis hero.

To the shrieks of the crowd, De Minaur came all the way back to 5-5. During rallies, he was absorbing Cilic’s pace and reflexing it back; between points he was firing up the crowd—his crowd. By that stage, the points had a giddy quality to them, as if the players were two race cars careening toward a finish line together.

It was Cilic, somehow, who held off De Minaur’s charge and got to that line first. He won the last two games, and finished with a forehand winner—it  was the only way he was going to close out De Minaur on this night.

“I’m not going to lie, I’m completely devastated, but at the same time it’s the beauty of the sport,” De Minaur said, sounding as wise beyond his years as he is skilled beyond them. “I was up two sets to love against a quality opponent today and didn’t manage to finish it off, but I left it all out there. I have to be proud of my efforts. I gave it every single inch of energy I had left, and it’s a great learning experience for me.”

These days, De Minaur’s words, and his obvious passion for the fight, have to be music to the ears of Australian tennis fans and officials.

De Minaur would go on to finish the season at No. 31, up from 208 at the start of the year. Cilic would go on to lead Croatia to its second Davis Cup title. Together they kept New York’s greatest tennis tradition—late-night insanity—alive, and gave The City That Never Sleeps a good reason to stay up late.

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