Dubai Tennis: Marin Cilic says winning a second grand slam is what motivates him
Croatian looking to add to 2014 US Open title, but immediate goal is overcoming Gael Monfils at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships
September will mark five years since Marin Cilic defeated Kei Nishikori to win the US Open, still the Croatian's only grand slam title to date.
Cilic is one of only three players – alongside Marat Safin and Juan Martin del Potro – to snatch a major trophy from the hands of the dominant quintet of men's tennis - Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka - who between them have won 56 of the last 59 grand slams.
Since the start of 2014, no player outside the "Big Five" has won more grand slam matches than Cilic. The 30 year old has reached the quarter-finals or better on 13 occasions including two finals in his last seven majors, losing to Federer at Wimbledon in 2017 and the Australian Open in 2018.
Despite the near misses Cilic prefers to see only the positives rather than be weighed down by the possibility of ending his career with just one grand slam to his name.
“It doesn’t bring any extra pressure or weight. For me it’s a motivation, I feel that I’m close, my game is good enough to win grand slams,” Cilic, seeded No 3 at this week’s Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, said.
“Also my desire is bigger to train and do the right things. I’m feeling I’m improving, I’m getting better, so that at the end of the day is the most important thing for me, the satisfaction that gives me out of my tennis and I can get myself back on the court and enjoying tennis.
“I’m loving that and who knows what can happen until the end of my career? I would be anyway satisfied if I finished it today, it would be sad but still I would know that I did all I can. But still I think there are many more things that I can do to try to see how far I can go.”
This is Cilic’s 15th year on tour and he has won at least one title in each of his last 11 seasons since lifting his maiden ATP trophy in New Haven in 2008.
This time last year, the Monte Carlo resident was ranked a career-high No 3 in the world but he has slipped to 10th, hampered by knee issues that has limited his participation this year to just one tournament so far – the Australian Open. Cilic struggled with pain during his five-set defeat to defending Dubai champion Roberto Bautista Agut in the fourth round in Melbourne.
“I feel I’ve been on the tour a long time but I don’t feel that I’m fed up with it,” Cilic says.
“I’m feeling that the years went quickly and when you take things step by step, week by week, season by season, everything is a little bit easier. Even if you shorten it to tournament by tournament or match by match, things go quickly.
“You’re focused on that and your mindset is really set on doing things the right way. And then you look at things; OK I have another seven or eight years of playing, you’re thinking, ‘Man, that’s long’. But generally I’m feeling good.
“The only part during my career that I had problems related to injuries were my knees. Even at the start of this season, it was a little bit of a problem with that and I feel generally really good with the rest of my body, but I think towards the end of my career I think the knees are going to determine how far I can go.”
Andy Murray's tearful announcement at the Australian Open that his career might be over due to a persistent hip injury has forced many players to realise their own tennis mortality.
“It was definitely a sad moment for Andy and for tennis in general," Cilic said. "I really do hope that he can come back to continue to play and to play on his own terms.
“But looking at it from the side you realise how important it is to dedicate yourself as much as you can and to use every day the best you can, sort of not wasting opportunities and trying to be as good as you can in practice and in matches.”
Cilic said two defeats he suffered last season still rankle: a 6-7, 7-5, 3-6, 5-7 defeat to Del Potro in the last eight at the French Open and a rain-interrupted five-set second-round loss to another Argentine, Guido Pella, at Wimbledon.
“I felt at the French Open and Wimbledon [last year] that I had tough losses," he explains. "French Open it was with Del Potro [in the] quarter-finals. For me, second year in quarters over there and I felt I was close to winning. I was actually better [than Del Potro] in that match and at the end of the match I lost it and it was definitely a tough loss because I felt I could go through to the semis and I felt I was playing great tennis."
The defeat to Pella was perhaps harder to stomach as Cilic had beaten Djokovic in the Queens final prior to Wimbledon and was two sets up before succumbing 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 6-7, 5-7.
“I had great expectations, not with putting too much pressure on myself but thinking that with my game I was ready to go deep in the tournament," Cilic says. "So these things can shake you and it’s not easy sometimes to recover from that."
The landscape at the top of the men’s game looks set to change with the younger generation ready to challenge the big five's grip on power. Spearheaded by the 21-year-old Alexander Zverev, who has finished the last two seasons ranked inside the top five, the so-called "Next Gen" are beginning to make their move.
Cilic says the challenge for players like Zverev now is to perform at their best level on a more consistent basis.
“I think one of them, or a few of them, are going to excel much more in the next year or two,” Cilic says. “But also, what is a difficult part is that they have to keep improving, keep adding to their game, because Novak is still going to be playing for another five, six years. Who knows what’s going to be with Roger? Rafa as well. And even I’ll be there for another four, five, six years. Nishikori, Del Potro, Zverev - many guys that aren’t going to go away and their game is not going to go down.
“So it’s on the youngsters to bring it up as well. There is a question: how much the game can be better if you compare the game of what Roger plays, what Rafa plays, what Novak plays – can any of them play a better game on a consistent basis through the year? That’s the question.”
Cilic gets his Dubai campaign under way on Tuesday against Gael Monfils, who lifted the title in this month. The Croatian has lost all three of his previous encounters to the Frenchman.
Cilic joked during the draw ceremony that organisers should “repeat the draw” after his first-round opponent was revealed.
“It's going to be tough match, tough challenge,” Cilic said. “I haven't beaten Gael so far. On the other side, most importantly for me, I'm coming back from an injury, feeling good.
"That's quite important for me. I hope this stays as long as possible, that I'm going to be injury-free for the rest of the season.”
Updated: March 24, 2019 03:15 PM