Up Close and Personal with Newest Croatian Tennis Sensation Marin Cilic
by Jeffrey Lesser
Men's tennis returned to Zagreb this week for the first time in nine years. Along with the PBZ Zagreb Indoors came a chance for Croatia to showcase its players. Croatia's three marquee players, Ivan Ljubicic, Mario Ancic, and Ivo Karlovic, were all featured, and Ljubicic actually put together terrific tennis to win the event. However, the biggest story of the tournament was of the player who received a special wild-card invitation to the tournament- 17-year-old Marin Cilic, the 585th-ranked Zagreb resident. Fans may remember Cilic, the 2nd best Junior in the world, as the boy who won the 2005 French Open Junior Championships. To put it in fewer words, he is the future of Croatian tennis.
Cilic had played only one ATP match in his entire career, which was at the Croatian Open in Umag, where he was also a wild-card invite. In that match, Marin lost to 73rd-ranked Kristof Vliegen of Belgium, 7-5 6-2. In the first round at the Zagreb Indoors this past week, Marin was given an even tougher task- to play the 7th seed and 25th-ranked player in all the world, Igor Andreev of Russia. The extreme underdog, Marin Cilic showed his potential to be a great player, as he shocked the tennis world by defeating Andreev. In the second round, Cilic even had a one-set advantage over 55th-ranked Andreas Seppi of Italy before losing, 4-6 6-4 6-4. In his performance, Marin showed that the future for Croatian tennis is shining brighter than ever.
I had the opportunity to meet with and interview Cilic at the 2005 US Open. In our sit-down conversation, I learned much about Marin's inherent desire to succeed and found out that he truly has what it takes to be a great pro.
First, we talked about the French Open. He conceded that he was not confident that he could win the French Open until he reached the semifinals. While I was extremely impressed by his results at the Juniors level, Marin downplayed his past. He said that it was far easier to win on clay in the Juniors, because there are no real clay court specialists, whereas in the pros, it is a different story. Cilic, who practices on clay courts in the hot Croatian weather and on hard, indoor courts for the remaining six months of the year, had past experience on clay that proved vital during the tournament. He continued to put his success into perspective rarely seen in a kid his age. "Juniors in Grand Slams are good to improve your game," he remarked. Not dwelling on Juniors success, Marin seems to look towards life as a pro.
This professional mindset was never more evident than when I asked him about his favorite match he ever played. I expected to hear that winning the French Open Juniors was his greatest moment to date. However, he had another response in store. Marin said that his favorite match was his only pro match, the "big experience" against Vliegen. His greatest moment was his only professional moment. This sophisticated answer showed unbelievable poise and determination to become a great pro.
Cilic said he is also willing to put in the hours necessary to succeed at the professional level. He currently practices about five hours every day and "will do a lot in my training" to become stronger physically in the next few years. Marin wants to improve his serve, adding power and placement. Even though he plans to be a hard-serving baseliner (much like the man off whom he models his game, Marat Safin of Russia), Cilic wants to improve his volleying. He considers his current groundstrokes strong enough to enable him to compete at a high level in the pros.
Marin said that the main difference between himself and professionals is his lack of mental strength. "Professional players are very calm," he said, whereas he occasionally throws his racket. However, mental toughness comes with experience. Marin believes that he could have defeated Vliegen at Umag, except that due to his lack of match experience, Cilic was "a little nervous" playing in front of his country. I brought to his attention that Andrew Murray, the Brit who Marin defeated at the semifinals of the French Open Juniors, has been achieving success at the professional level. He said that this success happened as a result of Murray playing lots of challengers and futures events. Cilic resolved that in 2006 he "will try to play more Futures and Challengers" in order to gain match play experience and mental toughness, as well as valuable ranking points. He plans to officially turn pro and ditch the Juniors after succeeding in the Futures and Challengers events.
By dismissing most of his Juniors success as mere practice for the pros, Marin Cilic has showed he is ready for the pros and ready to commit his life to becoming a better tennis player. Still, while he is playing on the tour, he is separated from his parents and brothers. Being on the road means that there is "not a lot of time for friends and family," but Marin is prepared to sacrifice this to become a successful pro.
This past week, Marin Cilic confirmed my belief that he has what it takes to become a fantastic pro. Forget about Futures and Challengers. After beating Igor Andreev and giving Andreas Seppi all he could handle in the second round, Marin Cilic proved that he is not only the future of Croatian tennis, but also the present.