When the pressure started building, Marin Čilić took a step back. He was playing against a qualifier, Jozef Kovalík of Slovakia, ranked 117 in the world and had the match sharpness that Čilić, playing the first match of the year, lacked. At a set down, rather than asserting his big game on the Slovak, Čilić stepped further back behind the baseline.
“I should have played more aggressive, but I let him dictate,” Čilić said, assessing his 6-7, 7-5, 5-7 defeat in the second round of the Chennai Open. It’s not the best preparation he would have hoped for going into the season’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open that begins on 16 January, but Čilić’s reluctance to go for the kill, despite having all the weapons, is one of the things that has held him back from being a serial winner. “I was hesitating on the big points,” he agreed.
Last year, he achieved a career high of No.6 in the world rankings, won his first Masters title, made a maiden appearance at the ATP World Tour Finals and carried Croatia to the Davis Cup final. Yet, two defeats in 2016 defined his season, and possibly his career.
He led Roger Federer by two sets in the Wimbledon quarter-finals, pushed the grass-court legend to the limit in a thrilling fourth-set tie-breaker before narrowly losing out. He led Juan Martín del Potro by two sets in the Davis Cup final, hit more aces, more winners, and won more points than his Argentine opponent, yet had to endure a heart-breaking loss in front of his home crowd in Zagreb. In both the matches Čilić had been brilliant, but hadn’t quite been able to grasp greatness.
“It was a little bit unfortunate and difficult to lose the Davis Cup final,” says Čilić. “I didn’t do too many things wrong in those matches. Against Federer, I didn’t convert three match points that I had. Against Del Potro, I was also quite on top of him, and physically much better. These matches can happen. Obviously I am going to have to pay more attention, be mentally stronger, and keep up my game in critical situations.”
It has been more than a month since that exciting Davis Cup tie, where he was within two games of sealing the championship. Sitting in a cold interview room after an intense hour-long practice session in the Chennai sun, Čilić recalls it more as a fond memory.
“It was an amazing experience to play at home,” says the 6ft, 6 inches Croat, who returned to the ATP Chennai Open as a two-time champion and top seed this year, but is going away empty-handed. “It was just an amazing crowd, possibly the best atmosphere I have played in.”
For Čilić, even the match against Federer was a springboard to the most consistent six months of his career.
“The Federer match, I felt that gave me a little bit of push to be mentally stronger,” he says. “At that moment I was playing really well, but it just didn’t happen for me. It gave me a nice push for the rest of the season. What was key for me the last six months, and 2016 as a whole, was finding the consistency of tennis at the high level.”
Post-Wimbledon, he went on to win his first ATP 1000s tournament in Cincinnati, defeating Andy Murray in straight sets. The Croat also won the ATP World Tour 500 title in Basel, and beat then World No.1 Novak Djokovic for the first time in his career to make the final four of the Paris Masters. Čilić believes 2016 was the “most successful year” of his 12-year professional career . But given his talent and shotmaking ability, it was a long time coming. He already has the 2014 US Open title to speak for his Grand Slam credentials. And though he has made the second week of majors consistently since, he hasn’t quite been able to piece together the aggressive baseline game, hinged on that monster serve, quite as well as he did at the US Open. Čilić is now working with Jonas Björkman of Sweden, a former Wimbledon semi-finalist and one of the last true serve-and-volleyers. The chip and charge game is not really viable in this age of physical tennis, especially for a tall guy like Čilić, but he is looking forward to adding it to his repertoire.
“The players that were second rung, behind the top 4, top 5, need to step up,” he says. “(Milos) Raonic, for example, was able to do it last time, making it to the Wimbledon finals. It’s up to the rest of us to do similar things and get better. I don’t think I need to make big adjustments (to win a Grand Slam again). I am playing well; I am feeling really good on the court. I have a full year in front of me.”
Expectations have always been high. Čilić had won the French Open boys’ title in 2005 and was ranked world No.2 in juniors. Now 28, having had his fair share of injuries, a six-month doping ban, and lots of growing up in the spotlight, Čilić is aware that age is closing in on him.
“When you are a teenager, you really don’t think about the future, five years, 10 years, down the line,” he says with a smile. “I don’t have that luxury now and feel that I don’t have as much time and that’s helping me work a little bit extra.”
Losing early at the Chennai Open won’t really hurt Čilić’s Grand Slam prospects. But he is aware that in this super-competitive age, his chances of leaping to greatness are shrinking with each outing.