If you have to come up with a shortlist of favourites for this year’s Wimbledon title, Marin Cilic is undoubtedly close to the top of that list.
A runner-up last year at the All England Club, where he suffered from foot blisters during his defeat to Roger Federer in the final, Cilic has emerged as a force to be reckoned with at the majors, ever since he won his first and only Grand Slam to date at the 2014 US Open.
His winning percentage on grass – an impressive 71.4 per cent (65-26 win-loss) – is his best of all the surfaces and he enters Wimbledon beaming with confidence after winning Queens last week.
Ranked No. 5 but seeded No. 3 at SW19 because of the grass surface-based formula the tournament uses to reshuffle its 32 seeds, Cilic opens his campaign on Monday against Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka.
The 29-year-old Croatian reached the Australian Open final last January, also losing to Federer, and is on the same side of the draw as the Swiss top seed at Wimbledon.
Sport360 sat down with Cilic on Saturday, to discuss his chances in south-west London this fortnight.
Many people consider you one of the main favourites for the Wimbledon title, does it feel differently entering this tournament with perhaps more eyes on you?
Maybe there is more. I feel that I got into this small group of players that are title contenders but that’s a reflection of the last 12-18 months that I played really well. Also knowing that last year I had an extremely successful grass-court season and then again this year, with knowing that and being sort of under a little bit of pressure to defend the points and everything like that, I delivered really well in Queens and that gives me good belief in my own game and I feel quite confident coming to Wimbledon. But I know nothing comes for granted and I still have to continue to play well and show again great tennis here.
Last year you were obviously hurt during the final against Federer, how do you reflect on that experience and what did you learn from it?
Obviously it was extremely difficult at that particular moment, just knowing that I couldn’t give my best, but still all credit to Roger for winning it for an eighth time. Also knowing on the other side how difficult it is to stay healthy for so many years and to be always at a 100 per cent level.
But for me it was definitely a difficult moment, broken heart a bit, just feeling extremely disappointed as I felt I played amazing tennis up until the final and I had a very good challenge to lift the trophy or challenge Roger in that final. But I had, with my own team, made obviously another jump, another step forward last year, given this grass-court season, and I took only positives out of it. Learned about that experienced and I feel that this year, coming back, it’s another opportunity for me. I can relate to that, having experience to be in the final, just psychologically I think it can help me this year and the years ahead.
You won the US Open in 2014, but then it took you a little less than three years to get back into a Slam final. Now you’ve made two major finals within the last 12 months. How do you explain that arc?
I think that I found really good balance of my training regimen, also recovering, also working really well towards my goals. I felt that in the last 18 months I improved a lot as a player, I learned a lot about myself as a person, what suits me, what doesn’t, what kind of training at which periods of the year. And I feel that I improved two, three, five per cent, I don’t know it’s difficult to say, that just pushed me to have these results. Knowing that this came at the age where I’m at now, 29, turning 30 soon, I feel that time ahead I can still use to get better and better.
So you’re turning 30 soon, and recently got married, do you ever stop and wonder how did this happen so fast?
It does a little bit, just looking back and saying ‘where did all these years go?’ (laughing). I still remember when I came to the tour and I felt there is so much time ahead of me. I’m still young, I always in that group who were one of the youngest in top-20, top-30, top-50 and I always thought there is so much time ahead and results are going to come but then you realise that time is going very fast and you have to use every single day, week, month the best you can. I think I got better as a person and matured a lot in these last few years. I’m feeling great with my private life and that can obviously have a big reflection of feeling really good on the tennis court too.
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In what ways specifically do you think you’ve matured?
I think just my thought process in and out of the court. Having a team around me where we’re constantly looking for things on which I can improve – not that I wasn’t doing that before, but we found better formula for it, better ways to get better at it. also as myself, I think I matured, I feel I love tennis, I love trainings, and competing, even though sometimes it’s very hard, I feel that’s what I want to do. When I go out of tennis, I just want to look back and say ‘that was the best I could ever get’, I’m aiming for that. That’s why I’m also pushing myself every day to get better.
Do you think having already won a major four years ago, it takes the pressure off a little bit at the Slams these days, especially when you’re a contender?
It takes a few questions out of your head. In terms of psychological way, and physical, ‘Are you able to sustain it? Are you able to play two weeks great tennis? Are you psychologically ready to be at your best against the best guys in the world when it counts the most? Is your game good enough to beat them at the Grand Slam level?’ Those questions are out of my way and I feel that obviously helps me in my preparations for these Grand Slams.
Does it help that many eyes back home are on Croatia in the World Cup, instead of on you, so you can fly under the radar a little bit?
I’m quite relaxed about it. I still know I have to do my own thing on the court – with big support or without big support. Obviously I prefer the big support. Croatia played really well in the group stage and now difficult matches are coming up, it’s knockout stages. I truly hope we can go very, very far. I think the team has got great spirit, playing great, and anything can happen in a given game. But I hope they can go far.
You beat Nick Kyrgios on your way to the Queens title, how do you rate his chances here?
I just played Nick a week ago, and even though he was out of the tour for a couple of months with his injury he straightaway showed how great he can play. With his serve and his game style he is one of the guys able to win against anyone on any given day. So definitely he’s got a good chance to go very far, maybe to win it, why not? I think with his own game, he also feels it, that he possesses that in himself.
Andy Murray has admitted there remains a possibility he could still withdraw from Wimbledon.
The twice Wimbledon champion and former world number one faces Frenchman Benoit Paire in the first round on Tuesday.
Murray is on the way back from hip surgery he underwent in January.
He has played three matches since returning to competitive action, losing against Nick Kyrgios at Queen’s then beating Stan Wawrinka in Eastbourne before losing against fellow Briton Kyle Edmund.
Asked if he could have pulled out from Wimbledon, Murray told Sportsweek on BBC Radio 5 live: “Yes, it is still possible. I am taking it literally each day. Some days I feel better than others.
“I have played three matches, which was great, the last couple of weeks against some top players and did well.
“Some days I wake up and don’t feel quite as good as others. It is a bit of stiffness, a bit of soreness, which is kind of normal based on the intensity I am practising at, compared to where I was even three or four weeks ago.
“I only started hitting balls two weeks before Queen’s, which is not particularly a long time, and quite soon into that you are competing at the highest level.
“You need to be very patient and literally take it day by day just now, and see where you are at.
“I need to kind of see how I feel every day, but in terms of winning this event, I have no belief or thoughts that that is going to happen, really.”
Reflecting on his long battle with hip trouble, Murray added: “It has been hard.
“You become a little bit more patient and understanding that if I do wake up one morning and things aren’t okay, I don’t need to go out there and kill myself for two hours on the court. I can take a day off and let things settle down and then start building from there.
“I am learning every single day, along with my team, to try to get back where I want to be.
“The main priority is my health, and I have always got to have that at the front of my mind just now.”
“Yes definitely,” he responds.
“For sure, if I put my mind to it and really focus, take it one match at a time. I feel like I’m physically a lot better than a couple of years ago, I’m much stronger. A lot of things have to fall into place but I’m going to take it one match at a time.”
One match at a time. That is a relatively new philosophy from Kyrgios, especially at Wimbledon – the site of his first major breakthrough, where he upset a top-seeded Rafael Nadal as a 144th-ranked 19-year-old back in 2014 en route to the quarter-finals.
Looking ahead when the draw comes out is something Kyrgios rarely avoided in the past.
“Usually at Wimbledon I’m looking straight ahead, usually look into third or fourth round and seeing if that person has a good chance to beat me or can play on grass,” says the Aussie.
“But this year I feel like – I mean [my first round opponent] Denis Istomin’s dangerous, he’s beaten Novak [Djokovic] in a major before which is incredibly tough to do, he can play at a Grand Slam, he loves the grass.
“I’m not looking forward at all. But I’m taking it one match a time definitely this year.”
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) June 16, 2018
It is perhaps a sign of a new and improved Kyrgios. One who has always known he has the game to contend at the Slams but is finally willing to knuckle down on the details to keep his focus over a complete fortnight.
The world No. 19, seeded 15 at Wimbledon, has never hid the fact that he hasn’t wanted tennis enough in the past, but he admits the elbow injury that kept him sidelined for most of the past five months has given him newfound appreciation for the competition and the sport.
“Right now I’m in such a good place, I’m healthy, I’m winning and it’s a good feeling, so I’m not going to take that for granted,” he said at Wimbledon on Saturday.
“When I was at tournaments [supporting girlfriend Ajla Tomljanovic] watching people win and compete it was obviously something I missed going out there and doing.”
Kyrgios is no longer feeling any pain in his elbow, a fact further proven by his eye-popping serving stats over the past few weeks (he hit 32 aces in each of his second round and quarter-final in Queens last week).
His grass-court preparation included back-to-back semi-final runs in Stuttgart and Queens, where he posted wins over the likes of Feliciano Lopez, Andy Murray and Kyle Edmund, and pushed Roger Federer to three sets.
“I think it’s the best I’ve felt, I’ve never really won many matches before Wimbledon so to come in this time playing two solid weeks against tough opponents, it’s probably the best I’ve ever felt about my game coming on the grass. But then again anything can happen. If someone can come out firing, that’s why I have to be ready to go from the get-go,” says the 23-year-old Kyrgios.
He believes of all the Slams, Wimbledon is his best shot at winning a major, but is aware he has only ever made two quarter-finals at this level in the past (2014 Wimbledon, 2015 Australian Open).
“Putting it together over two weeks isn’t something I’ve done before, and it’s not something many people have done. There’s always the select few that can do it, and hopefully, you never know, in two weeks’ time it could be my breakthrough, but I’m going to take it one day at a time, I’m not going to think ahead, I’m going to do all the right things every day,” he says when asked what the biggest challenge for him is this Wimbledon.
A small hip problem has reappeared in recent days but he insists it’s not hampering his performance and he’s getting treatment for it every day.
The kind of shot that can’t be taught…
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) June 22, 2018
Looking back to his big moment against Nadal here at Wimbledon, does it feel a real major breakthrough has taken longer than expected?
“Yes and no. There are a lot of good tennis players. The tennis world is, I think it’s as strong as it’s ever been depth-wise,” said Kyrgios.
“You’ve got Feliciano Lopez who is ranked No. 70 in the world, probably one of the select few grass-courters who actually have a chance of doing really well at this event.
“The depth is so hard. And you’re playing tough matches. The way the seedings work, they protect the big guys so much that they’re fresh for the fourth round. It’s not easy for the guys ranked around 20 to really make an impact at a Slam and go past quarters.
“Hopefully, obviously I would have liked to have gone further than a quarter-final since then, but I feel like I haven’t done too terribly since then, I’ve made another quarter-final, I’ve made a couple of fourth rounds, so I’m slowly working on it.”
While Kyrgios sounds focused and hungry, it’s understandable that many choose to be reserved when assessing his chances at SW19. The Canberra-native has shown great promise in the past but has yet to prove he can keep it together over seven matches in two weeks.
“It’s difficult, very difficult to say,” Murray said of Kyrgios’ shot at the All England Club this year.
“I think there’s absolutely no reason why, with his game, and the way that he can serve. I mean, I think at Queens, I’m pretty sure he served in the two matches after he played me I think he served over 30 aces in back-to-back matches. It’s incredible to be able to do that nowadays because the courts are not unbelievably fast. He’s not just doing that on his first serve. He’s hitting huge second serves as well.
“If he’s able to focus for three, four hours at a time, do it over the space of two weeks, there’s no reason why he can’t compete. If you’re getting that many free points with your serve, they’re just aces. So 30 aces, let’s say in a two-set match, 24 points to win a set, that’s not including the ones that guys just touch and get a racquet on, you don’t actually have to win that many points, and play that many long rallies and stuff.
“There’s no reason why he couldn’t have a really good run here. But the mental side of the game, you know, is huge and extremely important. He needs to prove that.”
With something to prove, and a terrifying game, maybe now is the time Kyrgios finally brings it all together and delivers on the biggest stage.