Even in defeat, Marin Cilic could smile. For the second time, he had a chance to win another Grand Slam, this time at the final of the 2018 Australian Open. But he came up short against the same opponent, Roger Federer.
At Wimbledon 2017, Cilic, towering at 6'6" broke into tears. At Melbourne Park though, in an encounter that went on to the fifth set, he kept his composure. And despite the loss, he made clear his future ambitions.
“Today was probably one of the toughest matches I’ve (been) through, mentally and physically as well,” he said. “Still it stays that I want to win one Grand Slam this season. I've played a great tournament here, I was just short in it. But I hope I can give myself a few opportunities to win. The big ultimate goal is to reach No 1, in this year or the next year or in a few years, but I'm going to be working for that and looking forward to it.”
In the world rankings, the Croat is placed fifth behind Rafael Nadal, Federer, talented youngster Alexander Zverev and an equally able Grigor Dimitrov. The latter two have been snapping at the feet of the Big Four of tennis for a while now. But when it matters the most, at the Grand Slams, Cilic has been the one that has been the most consistent outside the Big Four.
Barring Juan Martin del Potro, Cilic is the only player less than 30 to have won a major. But is the only one to have given himself the opportunity to win another. And as the grass season nears its pinnacle at Wimbledon, the 29-year-old has become one of the contenders to win the title.
Last week at the ATP 500 event in Queens, Cilic played on grass for the first time this year and earned his first title of the season as well. In the final, he beat Novak Djokovic, who has steadily been growing back to the form that had made him one of the most impenetrable players in the world.
And Cilic did it after saving a match point, eventually winning the three-set contest 5-7, 7-6(4), 6-3.
The result was a stark contrast to his performance in the competition last year, where he lost in the final to Feliciano Lopez despite having a match point to his name.
“I’m feeling great,” he said after the win last Sunday. “This time it was a similar scenario but things turned around with the match point and I was the happier guy at the end. You can’t change too much even when you are break point or match point down. You have to keep going and that’s what I did.”
Against Djokovic, the hard-hitting baseliner was striking the ball cleanly and played the lines accurately. So much so that he stretched the Serb who had already been drained in the French Open, and left Queens thoroughly deflated after the Cilic onslaught.
It was a resilient and aggressive performance throughout the week that saw him topple Sam Querrey and Nick Kyrgios without dropping a set. The Australian, in fact, has even pegged Cilic to do well at Wimbledon.
“Cilic? For sure. If he serves well and he’s physically feeling good, for sure,” he said.
At the Wimbledon Championships last year, the Croat was expected to put on a strong performance to quell the remarkable comeback of Federer. Indeed, he started brightly, matching the Swiss maestro shot for shot. But that promise gave way to pain as Cilic’s challenge was derailed by foot blisters.
His pace dropped as Federer found rhythm, and in 101 minutes, Cilic had been defeated.
At the Australian Open earlier this year, the Croat was fresh physically and mentally. He played a five-set quarter-final against Nadal, pushing the Spaniard to all sides of the court to the point that the world No 1’s body could not handle the pressure. In the semis, he quickly put away Kyle Edmund, who had a made it surprisingly deep in the draw but his body couldn’t handle the rigours by the sixth match.
In the final against Federer, Cilic fought back after losing the first and third set to take the contest into the fifth. He lost but still left the Rod Laver Arena with his head held high. There is no shame losing to an in-form Federer. But what makes Cilic more endearing is his drive to keep at it.
“I'm pleased with the way I've been playing and it's a positive that I've opened the season this way,” he said after the final. “My goal is to stay the same, continue with my progress. Finish in the top five at the end of the year. That's a good challenge and it's going to be quite difficult because many guys are playing good tennis.”
The game is there. A powerful striker off both flanks with a monstrous serve, the speedy grass courts at Wimbledon are an ally to such a style. And with his second title at Queens, the big man from Croatia will travel to South-West London with lofty expectations.
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Updated Date: Jun 28, 2018 16:30:05 IST