Queen’s 2019: Defending champion Marin Cilic finds his groove to win 30th match
“I think it’s time for me to challenge myself to get back to winning ways”
It has not been the best season for the big, softly-spoken man from Croatia, Marin Cilic.
After an unbroken two and a half years inside the top 10—and here is a man who has seldom slipped far below that ranking since he first reached No9 in 2010—Cilic arrived at the Fever-tree Championships at his lowest ranking, No15, in almost five years.
Those were the heady days when he became that rare beast in men’s tennis in the 21st century, the winner of a Major, the US Open, in 2014. He joined another special club in 2016 by winning a Masters, in Cincinnati, and again proved his elite credentials by reaching the final of Wimbledon in 2017 and the final of the Australian Open last year.
Along the way, he built up a fine record at the prestigious Queen’s Club. Having won the title back in 2012, he made the final in 2013 and again in 2017, before reclaiming the title last year in the longest final ever played on these hallowed lawns.
It was truly memorable three hours and three sets against world No1 Novak Djokovic, in which Cilic saved match-point on his way to victory.
Cilic remembered it with great pleasure:
“It was an incredible week, playing Novak is always a big challenge and it was definitely a thrilling final. Especially when on the way I saved match-point and at the end celebrated the victory.”
So it is fair to say that the big-serving Croat enjoys the grass. Indeed until last summer, he had not lost before the quarter-finals at Wimbledon since 2013.
But despite an earlier-than-usual loss at the All England Club, Cilic’s year ended on a glorious high, with victory in the Davis Cup.
That culmination stacked up to 64 matches for the season, 44 wins, but the wear and tear was about to take its toll, not helped at the start of 2019 by some gruelling five-setters, back-to-back four-hour matches, that saw him exit the Australian Open in the fourth round.
Then a knee injury flared up to interfere with the season, and he suffered four first-round losses, fell ill before the quarters of the Madrid Masters, and won just two more matches ahead of Queen’s.
So stepping back onto this turf was akin to sinking into a warm bath. The defending champion has barely stopped smiling since he arrived here—except during an opening match that turned into a tougher test than expected.
Cilic surged to a 5-0 lead over the fast-rising Chilean 23-year-old Cristian Garin, and closed out the first set, 6-1, in short order.
But the younger man, playing at Queen’s for the first time, was taking his time to warm up to this new environment. Fresh from a quarter-final run in s-Hertogenbosch, he had notched up two titles from three finals this season, a 22-9 run.
From a ranking of 93 in February, he was now at a career-high of 32, and he was making a particular name for himself with comeback wins, and both titles had been captured in final three-set battles. He came close to doing the same against Borna Coric in s-Hertogenbosch, losing their match in a final tie-breaker.
He is a powerful package, with a strong serve and baseline shots, and although Cilic got the jump at the start of the second set, breaking for a 2-0 lead, Garin broke back to level things. Cilic got the lead again, 4-2, but serving for the match at 5-4, the Chilean broke again, 5-5: They would decide it in a tie-break.
And there too, Garin looked ready to take it to a decider. He raced to a 4-0 lead, making a sizzling return-of-serve winner, and drawing hurried errors from Cilic. But the defending champion got control of his serve, and a double fault from Garin made it all square, 4-4.
Cilic did not make another mistake, held serve for 6-5, and the Chilean hit long to concede set and match, 7-6(5), after an hour and a quarter.
And he was smiling again as he talked about being back on grass:
“It was playing really nice, same feeling as last year, so it was just incredible to come back here, to come back in front of this amazing crowd. It is always so much fun. Maybe felt not easy to move, because it’s the first time playing on it, and the grass is completely new, so I was careful not to fall over!”
He then reflected on the turnaround in the second set, giving credit to his young opponent:
“I had a bad game serving a double fault to give him a breather to come back. Fortunately I broke him back, and then serving for the set, he had a couple of great shots, one forehand and one backhand. In such situations, when you give a chance, they usually make them.
“But I came back—felt I played incredible tennis up to the middle of that second set and hitting the ball really, really sweet and playing some really nice tennis.”
So what is it about grass that brings such rewards—in this case, his 30th win at Queen’s?
“Even when I came onto the tour as a junior, I started playing great on grass. It suited my game, the conditions. It definitely fits my technique and my way of playing. Since I’ve been a kid I’ve been enjoying playing well on grass—every year has been really good.”
He will face a tougher opponent in Diego Schwartzman, against whom he has a 2-1 advantage, and on grass, Cilic should have an even stronger advantage.
The first seeded player Cilic could face is No4 seed Daniil Medvedev, who beat Fernando Verdasco.
The highest ranked man in this bottom half of the draw, Kevin Anderson, is another who is attempting to regain his formidable grass form this week after playing just three tournaments this season due to elbow injury.
The tall South African reached the final of Wimbledon last year to reach a career-high No5 ranking, and has been runner-up at Queen’s, too, but his rust was on show straight away against Briton Cameron Norrie, who broke him in the first game of the match.
Anderson could not get that break back, and Norrie took the set, 6-4, going on to force a tie-break in the second. There, Anderson’s experience and serving level lifted him at the right moment, 7-6(5). He would go on to serve out the match in front of a packed and vocal home crowd, 6-4, after two hours 21 minutes.