By Stephen Ratte
So Marin Cilic lost his semifinal. After an improbable run to his first ever Roland Garros final four, the Croat went out not with a bang, but with a whimper. After winning the first set against Casper Ruud, he was comprehensively outplayed by the Norwegian for the remaining three. Cilic sprayed errors from the baseline, was out-served by someone half a foot shorter than him, and ultimately lost out on his best and probably only chance to ever make a French Open final. But that’s only one way to look at this past fortnight for Marin. There is another way, and I’d argue it’s the right way when you put this performance in the proper context. Because for Cilic the last four years have been a ceaseless career backslide that saw him go from perennial slam contender to an aging afterthought. In a year and in this particular French Open where we have seen one time contenders hang up their racquets for the last time, Marin Cilic showed us that it is not quite time to write him off for good.
When reminiscing about Cilic’s career, most fans remember his run to the title at the 2014 US Open where he dominated Roger Federer unexpectedly in the semis and beat a physically spent Kei Nishikori to win a maiden slam title. In the era of the big three, slam titles are hard to come by and even winning one is a monumental achievement. He went three years after that without sniffing another slam final and hovering in the rankings around tenth in the world. But in 2017, he really seemed to be putting it all together. Although he was perhaps aided by injuries hampering other top players like Djokovic and Murray, Cilic shot up the rankings to fourth in 2017 and even made a trip to the Wimbledon final. Then he took another step forward in 2018, reaching a career high of world number three and making the Australian Open final where he nearly denied Federer’s twentieth slam in a five set match. Even heading into the clay season, Cilic’s worst surface, he was making waves. He made the semis in Rome and the quarterfinals at Roland Garros where he lost to Del Potro. Before Wimbledon he even took down Djokovic in the Queen’s Club final, leading many including myself to mark him as the hardcore fan’s favorite to avenge his finals defeat in 2017 and actually go on and win the thing. Officially sports books had Cilic behind only the big four and Zverev in terms of odds to end up Wimbledon champion. But it all went horribly wrong.
Cilic’s run at Wimbledon lasted through the first round and two sets in the second. After that, the Croatian wilted and lost in the second round to Guido Pella in five. It was an unceremonious end to the slam where Cilic had probably been under the most scrutiny, leading some to question whether the spotlight had perhaps shined too brightly on him in the lead up. Still, no cause for serious alarm. Even players like Federer and Nadal had seemingly inexplicable losses on their resumes specifically at Wimbledon. He had an okay if not spectacular showing on the North American hard courts where he had previously experienced his best results. And then the real backslide began.
Cilic became a shell of his former self virtually overnight. Where he was once a menace from the back of the court, he sprayed errors wildly under any amount of pressure. Where his serve had once been amongst the best on the ATP tour, he became erratic. His first serve was unreliable, his second serve was toothless, and he was most known for how many times he would bounce the ball and adjust his footing before his serves, a sign that most people assumed came from extreme nerves and a profound discomfort at the service line. His results absolutely tanked. He started 2019 ranked 7th in the world and ended the year 39th. He went three years outside the top thirty. He went three years without a title, leaving that Queen’s victory against Djokovic a distant memory of a more promising career. He has entered twenty-three Masters 1000 events since 2018 and has reached the quarterfinals once, a run in Madrid in 2019 that ended with Cilic withdrawing from the quarterfinals due to food poisoning of all things. He was on the Croatian team that made the Davis Cup final in 2021, but he lost every match he played from the quarterfinals on. This is a dire run of form for anyone on tour, let alone a slam champion who had been a mainstay of the top ten for several years.
We’ve seen several veterans hang it up in 2022. For Del Potro it was injury that pushed him away from the game, a series of surgeries that sapped his ability and passion to play. For Tsonga injuries played a role as well as a gradual decline in the absurd athleticism that at one time marked him as one of the most dangerous players on tour. But for Cilic it was something entirely different. He was able to stay active, playing twenty tournaments in 2019 and twenty-one in 2021. His body wasn’t betraying him. He hadn’t lost his physicality. He had lost his confidence.
And that’s what brings us back to this year’s French Open and what makes it so special for Marin. For him to reach a slam semifinal, his first in over four years, is a monumental achievement for him personally, and it has to do something to stem the tide of that lost confidence. His two top ten wins at Roland Garros 2022 alone is more than he had in the four years since 2018. He became only the fifth active player to make the semifinals in all four slams along with, you guessed it, the big four. Just take a look at these betting odds:
Cilic was +15000 to win the title through the second round. Nobody saw this coming. And however disappointing the semifinal might have been for Cilic fans, it can’t be denied that his run at Roland Garros was a stunning return to form. A return to the Marin Cilic that once was. I don’t know how long this will last. I don’t know if this is a resurgence that will stick or the final throes of Cilic’s career, a last desperate grasp at glory before another inglorious drop in form leaves Cilic back where he started the year. But who’s to say that Cilic can’t be a top ten player again? I certainly won’t bet against it after seeing the peaks he can still reach even now. He’s only thirty-three, he has his health, and he appears to have his confidence back. And that’s something to be proud of for a player who has languished for this long. And if he truly has recovered mentally, who’s to say what Marin Cilic can’t do?