Sport ǀ Cilic completes dramatic turnaround

Marin Cilic could scarcely have dreamed that just over a year after being banned for inadvertently taking glucose tablets containing a banned substance, he would be lifting the men’s singles trophy at Flushing Meadows. This was a landmark tournament that gave us a glimpse of the next dominant generation of players and also heralded the possible decline of the current one. For Cilic, the last twelve months have been fraught with difficulties, but the inspiration and belief of a fellow countryman who has tasted Major success has proved invaluable. The Croat had pulled out of a second-round meeting with Kenny de Schepper at Wimbledon last year, with the official line being that he had picked up an injury. However, it was later revealed that he had tested positive for the banned substance nikethamide during the Munich Open which had taken place three months before. He was therefore given a nine-month ban, which was backdated to the time of the offence. However, Cilic took his case to the Court of Arbitration in an attempt to get the length of the ban reduced, as he claimed that he had that he had taken the substance unwittingly and had not tried to enhance his performance. In any case, the quantities that he had ingested were so small that they would have had no real impact. The Court agreed and slashed the ban to four months.

The reduced ban allowed him to regroup and prepare for 2014 and it was during this period that he made one of the best decisions in his career so far, replacing his coach of nine years Bob Brett with the former Wimbledon Champion Goran Ivanisevic. Like Cilic, Ivanisevic won his sole Grand Slam having been under the radar. He had reached the final at SW19 on three previous occasions, but had struggled for form subsequently due to a debilitating shoulder injury. However, he stormed past illustrious names like Carlos Moya, Andy Roddick and Marat Safin on the way to claiming the crown in sensational fashion . He became, and still is, the only wildcard to have won a Grand Slam. It has been said that Ivanisevic has instilled new-found belief in Cilic’s game, as well as encouraging the 6ft6in right-hander to trust his instincts and not overthink, with Cilic exclaiming that ‘the most important thing he brought to me was enjoying tennis, and always having fun’. Despite winning two titles early in the year, in Zagreb and Delray Beach, his subsequent results were less dazzling, and he was only occasionally reaching the latter stages of tournaments. However, his display at Wimbledon this year must have provided encouragement, as he reached the quarter-finals for the first time there, and almost made it to the last four, as he lead Novak Djokovic before being pegged back.

Cilic provided a sign of things to come by reaching the Wimbledon quarter-finals for the first time

Even so, his performances at the regular ATP events continued to be unspectacular, meaning that expectations for the season-ending Grand Slam were fairly modest. He notched up some fairly routine wins to make it to the quarter-finals of a Major for only the fifth time in his career. In order to reach the last four of a Major for only the second time in his career (the first being in January 2010), he had to beat Gilles Simon, a man he had failed to beat in their four previous encounters. After a see-saw contest, Cilic came through in five sets only to be met with one of the greatest challenges in tennis history: beating Roger Federer at a Grand Slam. The mercurial Swiss has collected five titles in the Big Apple, and had a 5-0 winning record against Cilic. Given previous form, most people would be forgiven for thinking that the Croat had run his race. However, he silenced the doubters with a clinical display, giving Federer no time to settle and bossing the rallies with his thunderous groundstrokes and booming serve to record a straight-sets win.

This got him to the final, where he faced Kei Nishikori, who had also been overlooked as a potential victor prior to the tournament. The Japanese player came through epic battles against Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic, the World No.1, so was not short on confidence himself. However, while Nishikori seemed daunted and overawed by the occasion, Cilic seemed to relish it. His serve was once again a weapon, as he fired down 17 aces. Whilst the unforced error count of the two men was similar, it was notable that Cilic recorded twice as many winners as his opponent and won 80% of his first serve points, as opposed to Nishikori’s 55%. In addition, when Cilic had the opportunity to break, he was far more clinical than his Japanese counterpart, who converted only one of nine break point opportunities. Despite having his back against the wall at times, Cilic always looked the more likely to seal the win and he duly did in one hour and fifty-four minutes. The real test will now be whether he can handle the extra attention and media exposure that being a Grand Slam Champion brings. If he can maintain his focus and belief, it is highly likely that he will continue to deliver on the biggest stage.

Alex Bowmer

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