Court Report: This weekend's Davis Cup final between France and Croatia
Twice in the 2000s, a player on the ATP Tour has started his season with a final-round loss at the Australian Open, and ended it with a title at the Davis Cup. Most recently, in 2015, when Great Britain’s Andy Murray accomplished the feat; and back in 2002, when Marat Safin of Russia pulled it off.
Croatia's Marin Cilic is bidding to become the third player to achieve it, as he seeks to cap another strong campaign with a title that’s eluded him thus far in his career. The squad is taking on France and will be playing on the road for the first time this year. The two countries have split their previous encounters, with Croatia winning the most recent tie, in the 2016 semifinals to reach the championship round for the second time.
Croatia wasn’t able to replicate that 2005 title-winning run as the team dropped a 3-2 decision to Argentina. Leading 2-1 going into the reverse singles, Cilic lost a two-sets-to-love lead against Juan Martin del Potro that leveled the tie, and Federico Delbonis clinched it with a straight-sets win over Ivo Karlovic.
For Cilic, that loss was his second of the year in Davis Cup from two sets up: In the quarterfinals, American Jack Sock rallied to beat him from that position in the opening rubber. The 30-year-old bounced back to help earn two of the three points necessary to advance, but in the final, it was too late for a comeback.
Cilic, who’s been Croatia’s top player for several years now, started 2017 slowly before playing some of his best tennis over the summer. The 2014 US Open champion reached the quarterfinals of the French Open for the first time, and then followed that up with a final-round appearance at an upset-filled Wimbledon, losing to Roger Federer in the title match. Injuries slowed him down during the hard-court stretch of tournaments, but after the US Open he cracked the top five for the first time before finishing the year at No. 6.
More Grand Slam success followed in 2018 as he advanced to the Australian Open final, becoming the first Croatian man to do so. Federer stopped him again, but afterward he reached a career-high No. 3 in the rankings. That matched the personal best of Federer’s current coach Ivan Ljubicic, who helped Croatia to that 2005 Davis Cup title. Back then, Ljubicic and Mario Ancic were essentially a two-man team as they played every singles and doubles rubber over the course of four ties.
Cilic has provided a foundation for the Croatian team this decade, and in 2018, he might have his strongest team beside him. In the No. 2 singles slot is Borna Coric, who’s near the cusp of the Top 10 after a year that saw the 22-year-old defeat Federer twice. One of the nation’s greatest strengths lies in doubles: the veteran Ivan Dodig will team up with Mate Pavic, this year’s breakthrough performer in the discipline. If needed, Franko Skugor—who’s won three titles this year—is available, too.
And for that matter, so is Cilic: he and Dodig have won many memorable rubbers over the past few seasons. France is rolling out a singles lineup that doesn’t have any Top-30 singles players, as Coric will face No. 42 Jeremy Chardy first, followed by Cilic against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, ranked No. 259 after an injury-filled year. France also picked an indoor clay surface for the final, a decision that could backfire as Croatia’s won two of its three ties under such conditions this year.
The stars appear to be aligning for Croatia and its leading man of late as they appear to be the favorite on paper. Cilic has experienced his share of heartbreak in Davis Cup: perhaps triumph is finally in store.