Marin Cilic weaves his way through an excited opening-day crowd that is out star-gazing as Pune hosts its first Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) event at the Balewadi Stadium on Monday, to get himself a cup of coffee.
Polite whispers and silent admiration trail him. A few approach the 29-year-old Croat for a selfie and autograph. He is the top seed, the only top-10 player and the only player at the event to have won a Grand Slam singles title.
But neither Cilic’s game nor personality attracts mass hysteria. He’s steady and solid, and has to work “every single day" to excel at his chosen line of work.
“Work when you are tired, very tired, to keep going to your goals. Hopefully, the results will come," says Cilic, ahead of another long training session at the Tata Open Maharashtra on the first day of 2018.
“Some players that we have, maybe Roger (Federer), Rafa (Nadal), Novak (Djokovic) and Andy (Murray), they are incredibly good physical players, they have those natural abilities. You are born with them, with certain training you get better with them," he adds in his thoughtful, articulate way. “Looking at my own practices, I have to put a lot of work in to also get faster, stronger and be able to confront them on those parts."
At 6ft, 6 inches in height, his body also has to undergo a lot more stress.By winning the 2014 US Open, Cilic has become one of the few players outside the top 4 to claim a Grand Slam title. But Federer (36) and Nadal (31) made the majors their bastion once again in 2017 by splitting the four Grand Slams between them. Unfortunately for Cilic and his generation—which also includes the talented Milos Raonic and the explosive Juan Martin del Potro—that is the gold standard they are always measured against.
“I think it is unfair," he says of the expectations heaped on them. “Those (winning Slams) are my dreams as well and I am working hard with my team to achieve them. It is difficult to say that we should have won more. There were also other guys in the early years, from 2005-08, who were close to them, but didn’t win at the Grand Slams.
“If you compare Roger and Rafa to the years in the past, they are still playing close to their best tennis. They deserve the titles that they got. For me, that’s another challenge to bring my game up, in order to challenge them and understand why they are so great? Why were they able to come back that good?"
The world No.6 had to confront Federer’s ageless grace on grass at last season’s Wimbledon final. Having played some incredible first-strike tennis at the London lawns, Cilic’s campaign was derailed by an in-form Federer and foot blisters and ended in near-tears. But in making the summit clash, Cilic had once again showcased his Slam credentials.
“I always play quite well under pressure," he says at an interaction organized by Fila, one of the tournament sponsors. “It was an extremely positive experience when I was in the US Open 2014 final, because I didn’t get afraid of the opportunity that I got. I played the best tennis at the most critical moments.
“For me, now that I am coming back and playing, for example, at Wimbledon—quarters, semis and even the finals—I was extremely confident in my own game. I know I am going to fight my way through and try and win. It was not like I don’t know what I’m going to do, or questioning myself."
Even though 2017 was interrupted by injuries and Cilic failed to garner enough physical or mental strength at the year-ending ATP World Tour Finals—losing all three of his group matches—it was also a year when he rose to a career-high of No.4 in the rankings. Most importantly, he believes, he was able to nudge his “low level of play" closer to his best than ever before.
Consistency is one of the unglamorous pursuits of the relentless tennis tour. The steady Cilic revels in the everyday, unexciting small steps that eventually lead to a leap of faith.
“I don’t think people really get how much work we have to put in, how much we dedicate ourselves to get better," says Cilic, who, like all his peers, spent most of the universal holiday period prepping for the 11-month season ahead.
“No excuses and no shortcuts. If you want to be the best in the world, you have to try and be the best every single day."