25-year-old Marin Cilic watched the US Open from the dark confines of his home in 2013. He had been banned for four months from the tour after he had unknowingly ingested a banned substance during medication, and had no choice but to start over.
Till then, Cilic had been the ‘next big thing’ for more than four long years. He had once won four ATP250 tournaments in a row, sounding off his intentions, just like a younger Del Potro had done, before he fell into the cup of second-tier oblivion.
Perhaps this was the break he had needed, to raise up that mental level a notch.
On Monday night, after Cilic had become the second player of the year to win his first Major (after Wawrinka at the Aussie Open)—the first time this has happened since 2003—he reflected upon how inspired he felt when he watched the Swiss no. 2 lift up the trophy in Melbourne earlier this year.
It was like a rare victory for independent cinema amidst the relentless march of commercial blockbusters—which, in turn, inspired the likes of Monfils, Raonic, Tsonga and Cilic. It was possible, said Cilic, after Wawrinka had defeated Nadal in the final. So Cilic did his own version in New York, destroying Berdych, Federer and Nishikori in straight sets over his last 3 matches. Earlier on, he had struggled a bit, going for 5 sets against Simon and 4 against big-serving Anderson. He discovered a mode that he probably hadn’t experienced before, and went on to win the first final between two players other than Djokovic, Nadal and Federer since 2005. Nishikori was a spent force, and didn’t play close to his best, but Cilic continued his unbeatable streak to win his 7th match in a row—the first time, and hopefully, first of many to come.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the big 3—or 4, if Murray is included—won’t be back to dominate the big stage of Slams. Wawrinka hasn’t reached a Slam semifinal after his Major win, but managed to win the Monte Carlo Masters. One of the big 3 still managed to make it to the first 3 Slam finals of the year, and New York could go down as an aberration before their era well and truly ends.
Cilic will have played a big role to do so, if that happens. Many had felt that Del Potro made that breakthrough back in 2009 when he beat Federer in the final, but he failed to make another final—despite showing glimpses of brilliance when his body didn’t fail him.
What is remarkable about Cilic is the fact that he had never made a Masters semifinal before Monday night, and he had never even won an ATP500 event. This was an inspiring tale, every way you look at it, about a player that had received the guidance he so badly needed. Goran Ivanesevic came trumps out of the royal coaching-circle of Edberg, Becker and Chang, but he will know better than to take credit for Cilic.
Since last year, Cilic has bulked up considerably, and looks a different man than the lanky talented boy that kept pulling off the odd upset top-10 victory, but never came close to greatness. If anything, he can build on this and go from strength to strength in a rejuvenated men’s field, and lead the second-tier charge now that Ferrer is settling for the almost-journeyman status.
The common aspect between the two first-time Major winners this year has been this: Both Wawrinka and Cilic have won the Chennai Open twice each.
Perhaps, the first tournament of the year is the new stepping stone for conquering the impenetrable ring of the top-3? In that case, Milos Raonic will fancy his chances next year.