Marin Cilic is into the quarterfinals Marin Cilic is into the quarterfinals

Cilic serves notice

Match Report

You may not have noticed in this topsy-turvy Australian Open, but there is a Grand Slam champion lurking in the draw like a shark, one not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic. His name is Marin Cilic. 

If his 2014 US Open victory seemed unlikely when that tournament began, Cilic’s play over the two weeks of that tournament made it seem like the most natural thing in the world. If he could play like that, why had he not won more major titles? Best ask Messrs Federer, Nadal and Djokovic about that, but Cilic had still proved himself to be a true champion. 

Now he is through the quarterfinals in Melbourne after Sunday’s 6-7(2) 6-3 7-6(0) 7-6(3) win over Pablo Carreno Busta, the No.10 seed from Spain. It was his 100th Grand Slam match win – and the last time Cilic celebrated a major milestone at a major championship, he won the title. 

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“It’s beautiful to hear them [the milestones],” he said. “I had my 300th win of my career at the US Open 2014, but this is also a beautiful one. And I hope I can continue and get three more. 

21 Jan 18
Pablo Carreno Busta v Marin Čilić match highlights from round four of the men's singles.

Marin Cilic def. Pablo Carreno Busta match highlights (4R)


“Today was an unbelievable match. So many ups and down. When I was serving for it in the first set, Pablo came back and played really well and gave me a lot of trouble. Especially that third set – twice with the break up. It was difficult mentally with the conditions – it was a little bit more humid – and we had a lot of tough rallies. So I was really glad how I stayed in there mentally and really played good in the end.” 

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To win a Grand Slam title requires a little luck no matter how good you are. And Cilic is not the world’s luckiest man. 

Last year, he finally felt like he was getting back to his very best, the sort of form that had earned him the silverware in New York. He was ploughing through the rounds at Wimbledon, fancying his chances more and more with every opponent he picked off until, at last, he found himself in the final facing Federer. That in itself would be enough to put the wind up even the most confident of men. 

21 Jan 18
Marin Čilić's on court interview following his victory in the fourth round of the 2018 Australian Open.

Marin Cilic on court interview (4R)


He had spent 11 years grafting and hoping to get to this point, and even though his record against Federer was not reassuring (played eight, lost seven), his one win had come at the 2014 US Open when he flattened the Swiss in the semifinal. Federer, then, was not unbeatable. And then Cilic developed a blister on his left foot and his chance was gone. 

A lifetime of work, a career’s worth of hoping, and all for nothing because of a [insert very rude word here] blister. It was no wonder he was in floods of tears in the second set.

He is faring better here this summer (both feet appear to be in working order), but his luck is not improving. By beating Carreno Busta, Cilic has earned the right to face Rafael Nadal, whom he has not beaten since 2009. Oh goody. 

When Cilic was winning the US Open, he was coached by Goran Ivanisevic, who advised his charge to make the most of that thumping serve. Bang down the aces (Cilic had made a career of doing that up until that point), but try and attack behind the serve. Be aggressive. Use your power. And it worked. 

But in the four years since then, Cilic has not always followed that path. He and Ivanisevic parted company in the middle of 2016, and since then he has worked with – and split from – Jonas Bjorkman, another man who believes that attack is the best form of defence. The big man from Medjugorje knows what he is supposed to do; it is just that he does not always do as he is told. 

Against Carreno Busta, there were times when Cilic did what he knew he should, and then there were times when the Spaniard simply would not let him. It is all very well trying to be aggressive, but when the man on the other side of the net is firing his groundstrokes like laser-guided missiles and throwing in cheeky drop shots, a bit of slice here and there and generally making life difficult, it is not always the best policy. 

What will always save Cilic, though, is his serve. He is a big bloke, is Marin. Standing 198cm tall, most of arms and legs, he does not so much serve the ball as launch it. With 20 aces and 45 unreturned serves up his sleeve against Carreno Busta, his thunderbolt delivery was a like a ‘get out of jail free’ card, and he was using it with abandon. 

20 Marin Cilic
1 Pablo Carreno Busta

When he was the big, aggressive force his coaches have always wanted him to be, he tended to win the point; 37 of 45 net points went his way. He notched up 73 winners to 45 errors – these were good numbers in anyone’s book. 

Carreno Busta though, would not go quietly. Every time Cilic got his nose in front, back came the Spaniard. Cilic served for the first set. Carreno Busta broke him. Cilic nicked the tiebreak. Cilic was a break down in the third set. Cilic broke back. Carreno Busta broke again. Cilic broke again. The fourth set was no different, and it all came down to who could hold their nerve in the tiebreak. In that, Cilic proved to be marginally better. 

No wonder he let out a roar of relief when it was all over.