Cincinnati Masters: Cilic wins first Masters to end record Murray streak
Marin Cilic ends Andy Murray's winning streak to claim his first Masters title in Cincinnati
Despite being one among a very select band of Grand Slam champions on the men’s tour, and twice a Major semi-finalist too, Marin Cilic had never before got beyond the quarter-finals of a Masters tournament, despite reaching that stage eight times in a decade of trying.
Now he had not only made his first semi but his first final in Cincinnati, and victory would take him back inside the top 10, just as it had at the US Open in 2014.
2016 had, in fact, been a confidence-sapping season for the quietly-spoken and articulate Croat, as he contended with a knee injury that forced him out of three of the six Masters tournaments thus far. But the seventh, on the faster courts of the Western and Southern Open, were showing once more what a formidable array of power tennis Cilic owns.
The schedule had not been kind to any of the players this year in Ohio, as repeated rain storms held up start-times and interrupted matches. Cilic, though, would be especially challenged by the weather.
As one half of the second semi-final on Saturday, his three-set victory over Grigor Dimitrov did not even start until late into the night and was not completed until 1.35am. Fewer than 15 hours later, he was back to play the form man of the moment, former Cincinnati champion and top seed, Andy Murray.
The Briton had never before put together such a run of wins in his impressive career. Since losing the final of the Madrid Masters in May, Murray had lost just one match, the final of the French Open, and claimed titles at the Rome Masters, Queen’s, Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics. That was 33-1, and a 22-match unbroken streak since Paris.
Along the way, he had notched up milestone after milestone, not least in becoming the first man to win two singles golds at the Olympics. Since coming to Cincinnati, he had reached his 600th match-win over Kevin Anderson, his 200th Masters win over Bernard Tomic, and his 50th win of the season in beating Milos Raonic for a final play-off against Cilic. Now he would play for his 40th singles title.
But surely the toll of so much tennis and so many victories would take their toll. Murray was about to play his 11th match in 15 days and although he had come through the Cincinnati draw without dropping a set, in Rio he had played two tough three-setters on his way to a gruelling four-set, four-hour final against Juan Martin dell Potro.
All looked well as the protagonists enjoyed some sunny if windy conditions on Sunday afternoon. Murray opened with a love hold, and immediately pressed Cilic’s serve to earn a break point, but the Croat’s big forehand saved the day.
Murray held to love again, this time with pitch-perfect lob winner, and again Cilic had to dig in to hold. But the momentum suddenly switched in the fifth game as Cilic’s forehand ripped three blistering winners to break Murray, and the Croat held for 4-2.
Cilic kept up the pressure, drawing errors and another break from Murray, only to play a loose service game—two double faults and two forehand errors—to concede one break back.
Murray then held to love, but Cilic regrouped quickly to do the same for the set, 6-4. He had notched up many more winners and errors than Murray, but his aggressive game plan, the one that won him that US Open title two years ago, reaped its reward.
In the second set, Murray found himself having to work hard again, but the two men stayed on level terms to 5-5. Murray, though, began to urge himself on with ever more guttural ‘come ons’. He hit his thighs, and then became distracted by the umpire and by the shadows that increasingly broke up the court. Cilic began to look the sharper man.
After a love hold by the Croat, Murray had to fend off four break points and a time-violation warning—apparently a harsh one according to stats flashed up at the change of ends. But in the end, the Briton could not handle another big forehand on the fifth break point, and Cilic had the decisive break.
The world No15 made no mistake in serving out the match for a long-awaited Masters victory, 7-5, to claim just the fifth 1000 trophy not won by the ‘Big Four’ since 2010—the fifth of 59 Masters.
What’s more, Cilic became only the second man outside the same ‘Big Four’ to win both a Major and a Masters title, the other being Stan Wawrinka.
The win has an added bonus for Cilic in the rankings. He is back up to No9, and with Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych out of the US Open with injury, Cilic will be among the top eight seeds and therefore unable to face a higher-ranked man before the quarter-finals.
And those who saw the ease with which the Croat dispatched Berdych, Federer and finally Kei Nishikori in New York two years ago will hope they avoid the resurgent Cilic in this year’s draw, which will be made in just a few days’ time.