Of the 20 tournaments Marin Cilic competed in last year, he had seven first-round defeats.
The 2019 season, judging by the high standards he has set himself, did not go well for Marin Cilic. He started the year ranked 7th in the world and by November had dropped down to 39 – the lowest he had been since October 2013, when he fell to 41. This was also the first season, since 2007, that he failed to win a title. Of the 20 tournaments he competed in last year, Cilic had seven first-round defeats. And during the course of the year, he was occasionally troubled by a knee injury.
As the tour nears the first Masters 1000 event of the 2020 season, at Indian Wells, Cilic is still looking for rhythm in his powerful game featuring a big serve and heavy groundstrokes. For the 31-year-old, the upcoming Davis Cup qualifier against India comes at an opportune moment.
Cilic, now ranked 36, is not Croatia’s highest-ranked singles player at the moment – he trails world no. 28 Borna Coric – but the big-hitting 2014 US Open champion will be the biggest singles player on the court when the two teams meet in Zagreb on March 6-7.
“I feel that Davis Cup always brings out a little bit more in us, we always want to give more when playing for the country. And it’s going to be the same this time,” Cilic tells The Indian Express, ahead of his first-round match at the ATP 500 event in Dubai. “For myself, I always feel that Davis Cup brings out in me a little bit more excitement. As an individual in (tour events), I’m much calmer. I think it’s good we have that mix, it shows a little more passion on the court.”
The last time he played in the competition was when he won the fourth rubber against France's Lucas Pouille to seal the 2018 final 3-1 – Croatia’s second title.
“We are going to remember (the 2018 title) for many years. To lift that trophy meant a lot for me and my teammates. It was an incredible year after we reached the final in 2016 (losing to Argentina),” he says.
Individually, that year, Cilic had reached the Australian Open final and rose to a career-high rank of 3. But after the high of the Davis Cup, things went downhill for the 6-foot-6 Croat.
“Last year was more difficult with the injuries I had with my knee, the form wasn’t coming, one thing led to another. It’s given me a good opportunity to look back, to learn new things and to adapt,” says Cilic, who has reached three Grand Slam finals, winning just one.
“I feel that in everything, I haven’t been playing too bad, it’s just that things haven’t clicked. I worked quite well in the off-season and I started this season at quite a good level. Hopefully, this year can be more consistent from my side.”
So far this year, he’s made a promising start. The mental endurance and sting in his strokes were on display as he came through two five-set wins against higher-ranked players - Benoit Paire (21) and Roberto Bautista Agut (9 at the time) to make it to the fourth round at the Australian Open. Those scalps gave Cilic the distinction of having the most number of five-set wins, 32, along with Roger Federer, among current players.
But the youngest Grand Slam winner among active players just last month found another source of ‘motivation’ when he became a father for the first time.
“I was at home for two weeks. It was really a lot of (waking) up, no matter what time of the day or night, to see my baby boy, along with my wife. It just gives you a great happy feeling every time,” he says. “Every time I wake up, I’m extremely happy, extremely satisfied, both on and off the court. It’s important in tennis or any job to have that extra motivation to push you in the right direction. Things like these can give you great perspective.”
Next on the tennis agenda may potentially be a stop in Zagreb for the Davis Cup. The Croatian team hasn’t officially been announced yet, but the team’s new non-playing captain Vedran Martic ‘expects’ to have Cilic in the squad. And it might work for Cilic as well since he’s looking for that push that the Davis Cup always gives him. All that stands in the way is a full-strength Indian team.
“As always they have a great doubles team, and their singles guys are getting better and better. (Prajnesh) Gunneswaran, (Ramkumar) Ramanathan, and (Sumit) Nagal, they are all playing quite well, they’re showing great results, so it’s going to be tough,” he adds.
“With Davis Cup, it’s going to be interesting now since last year we are playing in a shorter format. Even earlier, there were a lot of upsets and you never knew what’s going to happen and even now, with the shorter format, I feel that it’s going to be even more exciting. So we are going to be ready.”