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Marin Cilic on Championships, Croatia and Late-Stage Success

Category: Other Sports,Sports

Since falling into a 5-1, 0-40 hole against Marius Copil to start this United States Open, Marin Cilic has dropped only four games in six sets.

The 2014 champion here and No. 7 seed, Cilic — who will lead Croatia against the visiting United States in the semifinals of the Davis Cup after the Open — simply overwhelmed Copil and Hubert Hurkacz to set up a third-round meeting Saturday with the fast-rising (and speedy) Australian teenager Alex de Minaur.

Cilic arrived in New York having reached the final in two of the five previous Grand Slam tournaments and has always had his greatest success in the majors at Flushing Meadows. His affinity for the year’s final Grand Slam event was clear when he sat down before the tournament for a chat about his career; how he has moved “into a position that I can hurt the best guys in the world”; and what lies ahead as he continues to challenge Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

The conversation has been edited and condensed.

You’re a big guy and you come from what I think of as a basketball country. No one ever tried to steer you to basketball?

They really didn’t. My brother played; he was quite good. I don’t know if you know the player Andrija Stipanovic. He was our neighbor, and my brother played with him. But me, when I started with tennis, it was only tennis. Straight away I had a good feeling with that.

In the N.B.A., at 6-foot-6, you’d be a small forward. But in tennis, you’re a giant. Fair to say that the extra height has helped you?

I think it does. I feel the height has helped me to find a style of tennis to be dangerous on the tour. I have quite good coordination for my height, good natural speed. But I often think, if I would be a few inches shorter, how would that be?

What’s it like when you walk through the gates here knowing you’ve won this tournament? It’s not something you can say at every Slam.

It feels really natural. I feel probably the most belief and confidence here, just in terms of preparing for a tournament, knowing what I need to do. Even after my first practice here, still my mind is going in reverse to four years ago, how I prepared for that.

How did that title in 2014 change you?

I’m a new me now, I guess. In terms of psychological things, this victory here helped me to first understand my level — and that I can deliver in big matches. And also that I’m capable of sustaining it for a couple weeks. I had here the best results even before winning.

You turn 30 at the end of September, but maybe that’s good news given how players in the 30s seem to be dominating the tour. What’s your theory on why players are having success even as they get older?

New kids are coming in now, so that’s good for tennis. That’s what we need. But with all different sports, you can see that the science around sport has grown so much. Everyone is taking much better care about their bodies. Each top player has two or three guys around him helping him out. This helps and makes it a little bit more difficult for the youngsters.

How confident are you that you are still in your prime?

I feel I’m getting better and better. I’m learning more about myself, which I feel is the most important part of being an athlete. I’m looking ahead at the next three, four years as a window of opportunity for me to be the best I can be.

How much peace does winning a Slam give you? Or do you need to win a second major to validate the first one?

Both. When I won the Open, it was the accomplishment of a lifetime. So many guys on the tour are digging and digging and having difficulties to win trophies. I felt I had good talent and that I belonged to the top 10, but as a youngster, you always feel there is a lot of time ahead of you. And then you come to the age of 26, 27, 28, and you realize time is shrinking. So in one sense, it was a relief to win it. And then the other sense is I really have big motivation to win again now that I know how it feels and also what I can achieve.

I’m guessing you’re sick of questions about what happened in the Wimbledon final in 2017.

No, I’m not.

So how do you look back on that final with Roger Federer?

Disappointing, obviously, to play one of the most important matches of my career and not to be ready to compete physically. [Cilic, hobbled by a blister, lost to Federer in less than two hours.] That’s obviously devastating. But still I was happy with reaching the final. I had an amazing run. Still, I am thinking, Am I ever going to have another shot? That’s the difficult thing. Even this year, I was in great form, I won Queens, and then I lost in the second round. That loss this year was hurting much more than last year. But I am quite objective about these things.

How worried are you that people will remember that match more than the final you won here against Kei Nishikori?

I think they associate me more with winning here. Obviously, the Wimbledon final and the Australian Open final were some of the best highlights, but winning is completely different. In tennis terms, you’re going into history when you win a Slam.

I’ve covered some pretty emotional Croatia versus Serbia games in basketball. Is there ever any of that tension when you play Novak Djokovic?

Not really. Not at all, actually. We just played in Queens and also in Cincy. We are great friends. We get along really well. We’re practicing together almost every week. And wherever we are, we are spending a lot of time in the locker room chatting, always joking.

You’re clearly a big sports fan, so tell me what you took from watching Croatia go to the World Cup final in the summer.

Seeing how much passion can have an influence on the result — that’s the beauty of sport. Throughout the history, you had some unexplainable things. Passion and heart have pushed teams or even individuals to the latest stages or winning trophies. Our national team and how they were all together — I feel that was the main reason for the result.

Were you throwing things when they lost in the final?

It was disappointing, but they played an amazing match. You can’t say losing to France is a huge disappointment. I felt that the country backed the team so well. The celebrations were the same back home as if we would have won it.


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