When the US Open began late last month, there were plenty of players tabbed to break-through at Flushing Meadows. Marin Cilic was not necessarily one of them.
After all, the soon-to-be 26 year old was well past being considered a promising young player. He was practically a veteran, given that this was his tenth season on the ATP Tour. Indeed, Marin Cilic was now one of those pros who ambled around reminding us just how promising they once were, and how they had fallen short trying to fulfill all that potential. He seemed to serve as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when an exciting young athlete enters the big leagues.
On the surface, Marin Cilic’s game seems ideally suited for success in modern tennis. Standing at 6-foot-6, Marin is far from the archetypal lumbering big man: there’s a natural elasticity about the way he moves around a tennis court. The big serve is there, though Cilic has never really dazzled in that department quite like his compatriot and coach, former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic. Adding to that already enviable set of skills, Cilic seemed to be a naturally gifted returner of serve – yet another rarity among big men. His two-handed backhand has always been world class, and if one could pinpoint a weakness, it is his forehand, which has let him down from time to time.
All of the above was evident six years ago when Marin Cilic produced a stunning upset at the 2008 Australian Open. The previous year, Chilean folk hero Fernando “Gonzo” González had blasted his way to an improbable run to the Australian Open final. But a year later, when González faced a 19-year-old Croat in the third round, he received a dose of his own medicine. González went down 2-6, 7-6(4), 3-6, 1-6, with the last two sets accurately describing the thumping that took place on Rod Laver Arena.
However, Cilic didn’t initially build on that huge victory, falling meekly in the next round to American James Blake. He did, though, win his first ATP title later that year in New Haven. It would be the first of 11 titles Cilic would collect before yesterday’s enormous triumph at the US Open. But curiously, all 11 were won at the ATP 250 level, which is the smallest level of event held on the ATP World Tour. Since that promising showing at the 2008 Australian Open, Marin Cilic had managed to make only 2 finals in the next tier of events, the ATP 500s, and not a single appearance in the title match of the prestigious Masters 1000. Yes, there was a semifinal appearance at the 2010 Australian Open, quarterfinals appearances at the 2009 and 2012 US Open, and a similar performance this year at Wimbledon. But while all of these achievements are nothing to sneeze at, they sure seemed like small potatoes when considering the sizeable talents of the man.
Looking from afar, it seemed like Marin Cilic was suffering from a common disease among big men: they forget how tall and powerful they are, and instead resort to playing the game like much shorter men. It’s a losing proposition even for someone as athletic as Cilic: shorter men will almost always be faster and more consistent. Perhaps they become convinced that the way to go is to be ultra-careful with their groundstrokes, opting for safety rather than risk.
There were too many times in the past six years where I watched Marin Cilic play tennis and marveled at how pointless his approach was to normal baseline rallies. It’s as if he thought he had no baseline weapons whatsoever, and so his only alternative was to outlast his opponents instead of hitting through them. As well as being an odd spectacle, it was proving to be an unsuccessful one: Marin Cilic’s career-high ranking of number 9 in the world had been achieved four years ago. And his top-10 status proved fleeting: it only lasted six weeks.
To complicate matters further, Cilic tested positive for a banned substance during the Munich event last year. Notified of his transgression just before his second round match at Wimbledon, Cilic withdrew. He was given a retroactive nine-month ban, which on appeal was reduced to just four. The Croat had apparently ingested small traces of a banned substance after taking an over-the-counter supplement bought by someone on his team. It was an unfortunate affair perhaps best summarized by Roger Federer thusly: “I truly believed he didn’t do anything wrong in the sense that he did it on purpose. Was he stupid maybe? Maybe.”
Did that forced absence from the sport give Cilic the hunger and the drive to finally push through and make the most out of his tennis? Quite possibly so. Early signs of a Cilic resurgence could be seen during a three-tournament stretch in February of this year, where he made three consecutive finals and took home two of the titles. However, the one event he did lose was at the biggest event in the stretch: the ATP 500 in Rotterdam. Hence, Cilic’s run of form went somewhat unnoticed. The Croat didn’t help his own cause, as he stumbled through the two subsequent Masters 1000, where his highlight was perhaps taking a set off of eventual champion Novak Djokovic in the round of 16 at Indian Wells.
Cilic’s next highlight was at Wimbledon, where he once again faced Djokovic, and pushed the eventual champion right to the edge. The Croat faded after taking a 2-sets-to-1 lead in their quarterfinal, and he didn’t make it past the round of 16 in the two biggest events leading into the US Open: the Canada and Cincinnati Masters 1000.
Was the sleeping giant finally waking up? If you looked at Cilic’s Wimbledon performance, sure, you could make the case for it. If you looked at the clay season results, perhaps not (Marin made only one quarterfinal appearance on the red surface). But even when you project the Wimbledon showing in the most optimistic way possible, Marin Cilic’s phenomenal run of form in Flushing Meadows seemed to come out of nowhere.
At the US Open, Marin Cilic ended up winning the last three rounds of the event (all three against top-10 seeds) without dropping a set. Not content with overrunning fellow big man Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals, he produced a stunning display of ruthless power tennis to dismantle the mighty Roger Federer. In five previous tries, Cilic had never managed to beat the legendary Swiss Maestro. But last Saturday on Arthur Ashe, the world was finally a witness to the dazzling spectacle of the Croat’s game in full flight.
Cilic dominated with his serve: Roger Federer managed to win only 27 percent of all return points, and a measly 13 percent of all points played on Marin’s first serve. Cilic’s serve was only in danger twice all match, and just when the Arthur Ashe crowd thought that the tide was turning with an early Federer break in the third set of the match, Cilic erased the advantage just moments later. The subdued faithful watched in awe as this unfamiliar figure sealed his place in the US Open final by firing three-straight aces past their beloved Roger, adding a gorgeous backhand down the line winner as the exclamation point.
It was more of the same in the final, where Kei Nishikori – widely considered one of the games brightest returners of serve – managed to win just 29 percent of all return points. Marin Cilic continued to embrace his big-man tennis: there wasn’t much hesitation when faced with a short ball to put away. There was a laser-like focus to attack, to overwhelm his much shorter opponent on every single point. Cilic’s impeccable timing on the backhand side was in full display, and it seemed to win most of the duels against Nishikori’s excellent two-hander.
Marin Cilic thus sealed his first Major title with a third consecutive thumping performance, dismissing Nishikori with a triple 6-3 scoreline that accurately tells the story of a lopsided affair.
With this kind of title run, Marin Cilic poses some interesting questions for men’s tennis. The fact that he faced Kei Nishikori in the final was already noteworthy, since it was the first final since the 2005 Australian Open where Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray weren’t present. Is the Big 4 era over? Is a changing of the guard afoot? It’s quite tempting to say that yes, history is repeating itself, given how similar Cilic’s run was to Marat Safin’s journey to the 2000 US Open title (particularly in the way Safin destroyed Pete Sampras in the final).
The simple answer is that while a changing of the guard is imminent, it’s highly unlikely it takes place in such a short period of time. Yes, 2014 saw men’s tennis crown two first-time Major winners in Cilic and Wawrinka (neither of whom had previously won anything bigger than an ATP 250). But the Big 4 still populated the finals at the French Open and Wimbledon. Wawrinka played Nadal in the Australian Open final. And Nishikori and Cilic had to take out Djokovic and Federer in New York just so they could set up their unexpected final.
Sure, there are questions around Andy Murray. Will he ever get back to his Wimbledon winning days? Right now he’s simply trying to hang on in the top 10. Rafael Nadal continues to struggle with injuries, but he’s eager to get back out there and challenge for the year-end number 1 spot. So is Roger Federer, who despite getting picked apart in that semifinal against Cilic, is still healthy and hungry for more glory. Novak Djokovic is in his absolute physical prime at age 27, and while the impending birth of his first child finds him slightly distracted, he’ll surely fight to keep his top ranking.
Moreover, let’s see if the next rulers of men’s tennis can actually dominate week after week. No one has any clue as to how Marin Cilic will perform for the rest of the year. Simply put, he’s never played this well before. Same goes for Kei Nishikori, who has had to endure plenty of spells on the sidelines due to all sorts of injuries. It’ll be up to them, as well as Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Nick Kyrgios and others to make sure that a true revolution is taking place, and not just some isolated setbacks for the powers that be.
Still, just as it was difficult not to try and imagine what the dazzling 2008 iteration of Marin Cilic could become, it’s certainly hard not to expect to see more of the imposing tennis he displayed during his phenomenal run to the US Open title. Perhaps at least one sleeping giant has finally awoken.