Cream has risen to the top, as Marin Cilic and Novak Djokovic set Queen’s final clash

Novak Djokovic will take on Marin Cilic in the final of the Fever-Tree Championships at Queen’s Club

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic in action at Queen's Club Photo: Marianne Bevis

The draw was a stacked one for the Fever-tree Championships at Queen’s Club, in one of the finest line-ups the tournament had ever produced. Four top-10 players, all eight seeds inside the top 20, four former Grand Slam champions, two former world No1s: It was a starry affair.

And scattered among the seeds were some huge problems in the shape of unseeded giants returning from long-standing injury absences.

Novak Djokovic, a finalist at Queen’s in 2008 and a 12-time Major champion, missed the last six months of 2017 and then many weeks this year following elbow surgery. He was ranked 22.

Stan Wawrinka, a three-time Major champion, had barely played at all since last Wimbledon following double knee surgery last summer. He was ranked 261.

Milos Raonic was ranked 31, and Nick Kyrgios at 21, both troubled by injuries this season, both with grass credentials.

Then there was the five-time former Queen’s champion and the No1 in the world this time last year, Andy Murray, who would play his first tour match since last summer, ranked 156.

Little wonder, then, that some of the seeds felt under immediate pressure. Grigor Dimitrov faced and lost to Djokovic in the second round. Kyrgios and Murray drew each other in the first round, and the young Aussie star won a thriller before beating No7 seed Kyle Edmund.

They were not the only big names to suffer, though. No8 Tomas Berdych, No6 Jack Sock, No4 David Goffin, No3 Kevin Anderson, all lost in the first round, helping to clear the draw of all but four seeds by the final 16. And come the semis, only one seed remained, the top one, the former Queen’s and US Open champion, Marin Cilic.

The 2012 winner was proving to be one of the most consistent performers on the tour, particularly so at Queen’s. He also made the finals in 2013 and last year, making a record of 27-9 at the Club. Only this January, he hit a career-high No3 after reaching this second Major final in six months at the Australian Open. And his results at Wimbledon have also continued an upward trajectory: three quarter-finals since 2014, and the final last year.

And the confidence that follows such performances accompanied his progress through the top line of a difficult draw: Fernando Verdasco, Gilles Muller, Sam Querrey—all big men with big games, but Cilic came out the victor.

That lined up the what promised to be another big-hitting match in the semis against Kyrgios, who put out not just Murray and Edmund but the defending champion Feliciano Lopez. He was hitting aces at will, 32 in each of his last two matches. He entered his third meeting against Cilic in the knowledge that he had also taken Roger Federer to the limit in the Stuttgart semis last week: He bristled with confidence.

But Cilic rose once again to the challenge with clutch tennis, fine serving, clean and deep strikes from the baseline, and formidable concentration.

The two men headed to a first-set tie-break having faced not one break point and each dropping only four points on their first serves. But Cilic edged the first lead at 4-2, and clinched the set courtesy of a long backhand from Kyrgios, 7-6(3).

By the time they reached a second tie-break, the statistics were equally impressive. Cilic had dropped only one point, Kyrgios only four on first serve, with percentages around the 80 percent mark. But the Croat, intense and focused, earned precisely the same advantage, 4-2, and took the win, in just under an hour and a half, 7-6(4).

He summed it up as concisely as he had played his tennis:

“I’m happy with the performance, especially as consistently to serve on that big level. It’s not easy when you know that you are under pressure to hold your serve most of the time. That’s another big plus. I’m really pleased with the mental approach to the game and also executing it really well.”

But who of the remaining unseeded men would Cilic take on in his fourth Queen’s final, his 32nd tour final, on Sunday?

It came down to that ever-formidable three-time Wimbledon champion, Djokovic, whose steady return to his top-flight form was already emerging in the final stages of the clay swing, and the more unlikely figure of world No61 Jeremy Chardy.

The Frenchman, though, had cut a swathe through the last fortnight, with his big serving and net skills reaping huge rewards. Indeed, he had won 12 of his last 13 grass court matches, after winning the Surbiton Challenger and reaching the final in s-Hertogenbosch. He did, however, have a 0-10 record against Djokovic, had never even won a set against the Serb, and that included two Wimbledon meetings.

As for the 31-year-old Djokovic, he had joined elite company to reach the semi-final with his 800th match-win. Now he was aiming for another significant number with his first singles final here in a decade, a possible 99th career final.

It proved to be a high-quality, highly entertaining encounter that belied their head-to-head and their resume. The ball striking was fast, low, accurate, and the serving top quality. There was not a break chance in the first set, and they headed into a tie-break, which would be determined by the smallest of margins, the result of brave attacking net play from Chardy—but an error. Djokovic took the set, 7-6(5), after 50 minutes.

Chardy’s bold play had earned 17 winners, one more than Djokovic, but the Serb’s play was so clean and precise, his athleticism so fast and elastic, that he made only seven unforced errors.

With the wind in his sails, then, Djokovic was able to play still more freely, and had Chardy under pressure on serve come the fifth game. The Frenchman saved break point, upped his attack at the net with some superb touch volleys, and held on with some crowd-pleasing winners until that crucial game, the ninth.

Djokovic sensed his moment, got two break chances, and made a stunning forehand return to convert. He served out the match, 6-4, after an hour and 32 minutes.

It has clearly been an emotional journey for Djokovic here at Queen’s. He is back in winning shape a full year after winning his last title at Eastbourne a year ago. And this is his first final since. Even so, he was not fully satisfied with his performance.

“I’m just self-critical, I guess, at times. Maybe don’t show the satisfaction or exhilaration when maybe it’s expected, or other emotions… I’m just glad to keep this going, and I don’t want to celebrate too much. Even though I’m really happy I’m in the finals, I just want to keep building this momentum.”

Against Cilic, he has another dominant record, 14-1, though the Croat won their last, indoors, 18 months ago. And he admitted that Cilic’s form had risen since then:

“He’s probably been playing the best that he’s ever played. Grass court suits him very well. Big serve. Just big game overall. I have known him very well on and off the court. A lot of respect for each other. We are good friends. We practise a lot… We know each other’s game quite well.”

He is right: Cilic is playing well, playing confidently and intelligently, and with more intensity than he once did. It is no accident that he is the top seed here. But it is also no accident that one of the greatest players of his generation will be on the other side of the net, seeded or not.

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