After a dismal 2019 season which was riddled with injuries and bad fortune, Marin Cilic is up and running again.
In his first-round match at the 2020 Australian Open, the 2018 runner-up dispatched youngster Corentin Moutet in straight sets 6-3, 6-2, 6-4, taking less than two hours to get the job done.
Cilic looked good from the get-go and did not put a foot wrong in the match. He hit 34 winners and 9 aces to get past the 20-year-old from France comfortably.
"It's great to be back at the Australian Open. It's a treat to play at Melbourne park, especially in the outside courts, where there were a lot of Croatian supporters. I had a really good match from start to finish and played well on a really good level. Not many ups and downs and I was quite solid so I'm really happy," said Cilic after the match.
The Croat was also full of praise for his opponent, who has made great strides in a young career that has only just taken off. Moutet is part of the "Next-Gen" and is No 70 in the world, with some big wins under his belt. Just a couple of weeks ago, he defeated both Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka en-route to the final in Doha, eventually losing to Andrey Rublev.
"I've practised with him (Moutet) a few times but never played him before. He is going to be really tricky to play in the future. He has a bit of an unusual game, really quick around the court and really fun to watch as well. It was important for me to go into the match with the right mindset. I'm pleased that I won in straight sets," Cilic added.
Croatia's Marin Cilic makes a backhand return to France's Corentin Moutet during their first round singles match at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia. AP
His last major triumph being the Davis Cup title in 2018 with Croatia, Cilic has been on a downward spiral lately after a few years of consistent results.
His 2019 season, where he fell from No 7 to No 39 in the rankings, was marked by shock losses against players ranked outside the top 100 and a number of first-round exits. He had a few injuries to deal with too and was not in the right headspace to compete at the highest level.
"Last year was a different kind of year for me. After a few great seasons, the knee problem I had pushed me back a bit. Throughout the season, I wasn't able to find the right form due to various reasons. But I took this as a positive at the end of the season. Every setback is an opportunity to learn. I just decided that I need to work on my game and get ready for 2020," he said.
The Croat looked a lot more confident on the court in his first outing at the Australian Open than he did at any point last year. Apart from one break of serve, he didn't really face much trouble against Moutet.
But Cilic insisted he has not made many changes to his game, and that he's just put in a lot more hard work on the practice court.
"I'm just playing with more intent in practice and having the right mindset and not having many doubts about my game. You need to be really specific about your work and how to execute your plans and play your matches. I also made sure to stay extremely healthy and physically fit as well," he said.
Before his poor 2019 season, Cilic was firmly entrenched in the top echelons of the sport, playing consistently for a number of years. Apart from the Big 3, Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray, he was the only player in the last decade to win a Grand Slam as well as reach multiple other Major finals.
Considering his impressive list of achievements, Cilic has never really received as much recognition as his fellow champions; he has been overshadowed by the presence of the Big 3 in particular. But the Croat has no ill feelings about that and believes that he needs to concentrate on his own game instead.
"It's evident that they are the top 3 players in the history of the game. At the moment, they are the ones winning the most year after year so it's obvious that they are the front and get more attention than the rest of us. For me, I'm not too concerned or disappointed over that. I'm focussed on myself and working on improving my game and improving myself as a person," he said.
"I love India," says Cilic
Cilic has played in India on a number of occasions in the past, both in Chennai and in Pune, as preparation for the Australian Open. Despite never winning a title in either of the two cities, Cilic has relished the time he has spent in India and says that he would love to go back.
"I love India. I have played in Chennai a few times and in Pune in 2018. I wanted to play there last year as well but wasn't able to due to my knee. I always enjoyed playing in India as I got great support. The fans are always ecstatic and I was really impressed with Pune as well. Great city, great weather, and it was just a lot of fun to play there," he said.
"I was thinking of going back to India this year as well after the Australian Open but my wife is pregnant and she is due on 9 February," he added.
Cilic started his 2020 season by playing in the inaugural ATP Cup where he personally had a decent run, winning two matches and losing one. However, he was not able to guide Croatia into the knockout stages unlike the Davis Cup in 2018, where he led Croatia to a historic title.
Still, he enjoyed the format of the new tournament and feels that it's a great addition to the calendar.
"It's amazing preparation for the Australian Open. The atmosphere was great as well and the conditions are similar to the Australian Open " playing tough matches against tough players," he said.