Up for the fight and honing in with his confidence revived, Marin Cilic wishes his progression to a first Australian Open semifinal in eight years could have been different.
The Croat advanced when top seed Rafael Nadal called time on Tuesday night’s quarterfinal with a late-developing upper right leg injury while trailing 0-2 in the deciding set.
It was building towards a compelling completion in a clash between two Grand Slam champions of contrasting styles for the best part of three-and-a-half hours, before Nadal called for an injury timeout at 1-4 in the fourth set.
Visibly hobbling and grimacing as the fifth set began, the 2009 Melbourne champion lasted just two games further before succumbing with the score at 3-6 6-3 6-7(5) 6-2 2-0.
“In the end very unfortunate because Rafa is always fighting really hard, always giving the best on the court,” Cilic said.
“Extremely pleased with my own game. Even in these other matches before this one, I played great tennis. Very, very high level. Had a tough match against (Pablo) Carreno Busta in the last round. Then today, beginning of the match was not the best.
“I was always in that process where I want to keep going with my own game and try to lift up, lift up, keep pushing as much as I can.”
Nadal had not lost to a top 10 seed at a Grand Slam since falling to then No.1 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros 2015, and with each passing round it was looking increasingly likely a rematch of last year’s final against Roger Federer would eventuate.
Cilic’s former coach Goran Ivanisevic predicted the No.6 seed could pull off just his second win over the Spaniard in seven starts should he produce the same lights-out level he found to beat Federer en route to his 2014 US Open title.
He didn’t factor in Nadal’s injury-prone body helping Cilic’s cause.
“Tough moments,” the Spaniard said. “[It] is not the first time an opportunity that is gone for me. I am a positive person, and I can be positive, but today is an opportunity lost to be in the semifinals of a Grand Slam and fight for an important title for me.”
Nadal started the more consistent of the two when he broke Cilic for 4-3 and sealed the opening set with a curling forehand down the line.
Staring down two break points at 2-all in the second set, the Croat was handed a time violation warning. It was enough to throw him, as a double fault cost him his serve.
The 29-year-old displayed outstanding composure as he channeled his aggression, breaking straight back and roaring his delight at doing so.
Riding the rage, he began reading Nadal’s deliveries and teeing off to break again. He levelled the match with ace No.8.
Having somehow plucked the third set tiebreak from a resurgent Cilic, Nadal erupted in elation in his support crew’s direction as he tempered his opponent’s shot-making to take a two-sets-to-one lead.
Where Cilic had often been questioned in the past for mentally crumbling against the biggest names on tour amid such adversity, his maturity shone when he broke early, courageously teeing off to take a 4-1 lead in the fourth before Nadal called for a medical timeout.
Four of the Spaniard’s six Grand Slam quarterfinal defeats have now come at Melbourne Park.
Lasting just seven more games, the pain only came on “in the last 10 minutes”, but it would ultimately seal an unlucky fifth Australian Open quarterfinal departure.
Tempering his celebrations, Cilic moved on to an unlikely semifinal clash with unseeded Kyle Edmund, an earlier victor over third seed Grigor Dimitrov.
This time, Cilic starts a heavy favourite to reach a third major final.
Lift up, keep pushing. A second Grand Slam title is just two wins away.