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Cilic eyeing the summit

  • Dan Imhoff
  • Ben Solomon

In Marin Cilic’s own words, it could have been the best two weeks of his life.

From the heady heights of his maiden Grand Slam trophy in 2014 to the vacuum of helpless despair in his second major final last season, his third attempt at the title match very nearly trumped both.

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Had one of two break point chances gone his way in the opening game of the deciding set, the Croat could well have ridden his momentum to cap a dream fortnight.

He would have become just the third man after Juan Martin del Potro and Novak Djokovic to defeat Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in a Grand Slam tournament.

Such small margins in a fifth set, such rare company at stake.

“Yeah, well, feeling a little bit obviously disappointed, which is normal,” Cilic said. “It was a big battle, five sets. I managed to turn it around.

“I was hitting the ball great. I was just playing phenomenal. Then first game of the fifth set was more or less crucial at the end.”

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For his efforts Down Under this past fortnight, the 29-year-old reaches a career-high mark of world No.3.

Only Federer and Nadal are above him.

“My ultimate goal is to reach No.1. That's my goal,” Cilic said. “That's what I'm working for.

“No.3 feels and looks amazing, especially behind them as well. But I know how difficult it is, knowing as well Novak [Djokovic] and Andy [Murray] and many other guys had a tough last season. For me it's a great time that I improved and that I am continuing to improve. Big time ahead for me.”

Ahead of the final, Cilic’s former coach and countryman Goran Ivanisevic said he would have to produce the same brand of lights-out tennis he deployed when he romped past Federer en route to his 2014 US Open title.

There were patches of that same attacking brilliance, his heavy groundstrokes and swirling serves skidding through the court, and those deft closes at net making Federer feeling the weight of history bearing down.

This was a different Roger Federer to 2014, however.

Six months after being overwhelmed by the occasion and a blistered foot in a lop-sided Wimbledon final, Cilic was meeting the Swiss in another Grand Slam decider.

And as he shanked and stuttered his way to 0-4, it again appeared nerves were getting the better of him.

Where he was swimming in his own panic in a second set whitewash in that Wimbledon final, Cilic flicked a switch to steal the second set of their Australian Open final in a tiebreak.

This one would not be the walk in the park Federer enjoyed at SW19 last year.

“We know he has the level,” Cilic said. “With his game style, it's very all-round.
“In those moments, obviously physical abilities come into play with his age, but also mentally he's able to challenge himself and continue with his progress.”

Such is the good nature between the pair, when it was realised both were holidaying in the Maldives in their off-season, Cilic sent Federer a text message asking if he wanted to catch up – no formalities, no coaches, agents or tournament media opportunities, just a hit between the men now ranked second and third in the world.

It was a chance for them to hang out together, with Cilic’s fiancée and Federer’s family.

“It was just nice and laid back,” Federer said. “To get to know the man behind the tennis player, I guess.”

No.3 in the world does look amazing and with a Grand Slam trophy to his name, Cilic is already in elite company.

Gracious in defeat, the man behind the tennis player has ample cause to hold his head high as he departs Melbourne Park.