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Cilic rolls back the years to rumble past Rublev

  • Alex Sharp

A red-hot Marin Cilic utilised his wealth of major experience to dismiss fifth seed Andrey Rublev 7-5 7-6(3) 3-6 6-3 on Saturday night to launch into the fourth round of the Australian Open once again. 

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The AO 2018 finalist unleashed a barrage of front-foot shots to complete his first victory over Rublev since 2015.  

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The world No.27 advances to his eighth second-week stint at Melbourne Park to take on ninth seed Felix Auger-Aliassime.  

"It feels incredible. I enjoyed every single second of the match," Cilic said, sealing a massive victory with his 24th ace. 
"It was obviously an incredible battle. Andrey is an incredible player, we played several times in the past and it's always a difficult battle with him. I just enjoyed it out here, had so much fun and played great tennis. 
"I had a good start to the season, played two weeks really good tennis in Adelaide and had two good matches before this one. I was really going for my shots, I was really lining up a lot of them, especially on the returns. I served great and that's the way to go against these guys at the top. If you are giving them a chance to hit, there's gonna be trouble for you. So I was trying to be aggressive, and it paid off." 

Rublev, denied any matches in the build-up after contracting Covid in late December, had breezed through his opening rounds, but couldn't withstand the blazing artillery form the 2014 US Open champion. 
There were early warning signs for the Russian, Cilic connecting with a rocket-fuel inside-out forehand as the catalyst for 3-1 on the scoreboard. 
Rublev erased the break with some relentless hitting and a backhand return winner from above shoulder height, which was only believable in the slow-motion replays.  
However, Cilic was dialled in and at 5-6 dragged the world No.6 wide, wrong-footing his opponent with full-throttle force to steal the set lead.  

Cilic's tactics were easy to understand, but harder to stop

Cilic's 19 winners had taken the racquet out of Rublev's hand. Could he keep up such accurate aggression? 
A clean set followed, both players arrowing searing shots, but zero break points led to a tiebreak. On the stretch, Cilic connected with a collection of clattering cross-court forehands, and the fired-up Croatian saluted his rowdy fans in the stands with a real stranglehold on the match.  

Rublev had only one previous escape from two sets down, back in the first round of Roland Garros 2020 against another tall, heavy server in the form of Sam Querrey.  
The 24-year-old's chances didn't look promising when Cilic had two break points for 4-1. Rublev relied on some brave strikes to keep in touch, and then instantly switched the momentum in the very next game. 
A forehand pass after a rapid-fire net exchange provided hope, Rublev's arms aloft in celebration with the break back for 3-3. The belief was there. 
It showed, the Russian reaching a purple patch, pouncing on some passive play from Cilic to scorch through 12 successive points for the set.  
A bullet backhand down the line in the very first point of the fourth set indicated Rublev was up for the fight. Cilic had other ideas, drawing upon his previous 129 major match wins to strike back. 
His forehand rediscovered its radar, and the 33-year-old dictated some razor-sharp points at 2-1 to crack the Rublev resolve for his first win over a top-five seed at a major since his final run in Melbourne four years ago.  

"I'm really excited, I'm playing amazing and I'm really looking forward to the next match. It's going to get tougher and tougher," added the Croatian.

"But I'm just going to keep my head down, give my best again."