June 6, 2010
‘Baby Goran’ ready to show he’s all grown up
Marin Cilic, the 21-year-old Croatian derided for being too nice, intends to fulfil his potential this year at Wimbledon
THREE months ago, Marin Cilic walked onto a golf driving range in California with his brother, Vinko, and his coach, Bob Brett.
Six weeks had passed since his defeat by Andy Murray in the semi-finals of the Australian Open. Three weeks had passed since his loss to Jurgen Melzer in the quarter-finals of the Barclays championships in Dubai. Three days had passed since his defeat by Guillermo Garcia-Lopez at Indian Wells. But nobody had seen him behave like this.
He snatched at the driver and whiffed another ball. “****! You cannot be serious!” shouted Cilic, the 21-year-old Croatian and world No 12, who has never been mistaken for John McEnroe.
“I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about Marin,” says David Law, the media director of the Aegon championships at Queen’s. “He seems to be a really nice, straightforward, popular bloke. Some have said ‘too nice’ to win the big ones, but with his game, I doubt it. The fact that he is still working with Bob [Brett] tells me a lot. Bob is one of the great thinkers of the sport and I get the feeling that Marin and he are kindred spirits.”
Ivan Ljubicic, a former Davis Cup teammate, painted a similar portrait last year after Cilic thrashed Murray at the US Open. “Marin is our tactician, a very smart guy. Whenever I play one of the young guys on the tour, I ask for his advice and he really understands the game. He gives me great tips.”
We meet on a pleasant afternoon in Munich and I have asked Cilic to choose three sportsmen he might like to invite to dinner.
“Well, I’ve never really thought about that,” he says, “but I would probably choose guys who . . . Bob has been telling me about this Australian 1500m runner who never lost a race.”
“Yeah, that’s him.”
“Why would you invite Elliott?”
“Well, Bob is always talking to me about life and how to improve, and to push yourself to be better. He had some great stories about him and how he never accepted defeat, and when you play an individual sport that is one of the most important things.”
“Maybe Usain Bolt.”
“Because he is so superior in what he does and he is a similar height as me,” he says, laughing.
“Okay, one more.”
“Maybe Michael Jordan. I watched a lot of basketball when I was younger and he was one of the best athletes.”
I ask about those days when he was younger. We spend an hour chatting about his life and go our separate ways. Some 23 minutes later, he sends me an email . . .
Hi Paul, it’s Marin.
I was thinking about that question of three persons I would go to dinner with, and instead of Michael Jordan I would put Kaka, the soccer player. He is one of my favourite athletes in general and seems like a really nice and humble guy. Thanks a lot. It was nice talking to you.
If only they were all like him.
The third of four boys born to Zdenko and Koviljka Cilic, he was raised in the town of Medjugorje, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and remembers a childhood traumatised not by war (the family moved to Croatia for a period during the conflict with Serbia), but by the agony of watching Goran Ivanisevic at Wimbledon.
Cilic was three when Ivanisevic lost the final to Andre Agassi in 1992, five when he was runner-up to Pete Sampras in 1994 and nine when he went down to the Pistol again in 1998.
“We watched all of his matches and when he lost in ’98 it was really sad,” he says.
“People got a bit cooled down from tennis after that, and when he won in 2001 it was just miraculous.”
Medjugorje was not averse to the odd miracle. There was the apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1981, the millions of pilgrims who flocked to its shrine, and there was the ramshackle tennis court where the new “Baby Goran” smashed his first ace and began to hone his skills.
At 14, he moved to a relative’s house in Zagreb to use better facilities, and within a year he was hitting with Ivanisevic, and working with Brett, whose former proteges include Ivanisevic, Boris Becker and Andre Medvedev.
“I was lucky to be able to stay in my godparents’ house,” Cilic says, “and that my father was able to finance me to go to some of the tournaments, but nobody ever pushed me to wake up in the morning or to be there on time. I was never late for practice. I wanted it for myself.”
In 2005, he served note of his talent by defeating the top seed Andy Murray en route to the French Open junior title and ended the season as the top-ranked junior in the world. A year later he posted his first ATP win, made his debut in the Davis Cup and had climbed into the top 175 of the ATP rankings. In 2007, he broke into the top 100 and defeated Tim Henman on his debut at Queen’s.
In 2008, he captured his first ATP title at New Haven, climbed to 22 in the rankings and was Croatia’s top player for the first time. He won twice in 2009, reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final at the US Open and cracked the top 20.
But the steps are getting harder now as he closes on the summit.
“Every practice counts, every ball counts, but it can be really tough to put it all together. A young player who is coming up can work on his backhand or the weak parts of his game, but when you get to the top, these things are sensitive to change and you can’t really experiment.
“To win a Grand Slam would be a great achievement, but I’m just trying to enjoy each time I’m on the court and to give 100%.”
In January, his composure and mental fortitude were highlighted in Melbourne when, after three five-set matches and one of four sets, he became the first Croatian man to reach the Australian Open semi-finals. His opponent, Andy Murray, was playing beautifully and had not dropped a set, and Cilic knew he had to strike early.
“I felt I could do it,” he says, “and did really well to push myself and get the psychological advantage [he won the first set 6-3] but in the second set it turned around a bit [he lost 6-4] and also in a mental way. When you are in front you breathe easier and each point pushes you along, but when it turns around it’s much harder, and I began to feel tired. If you are one step behind, those guys are merciless, they take everything, and it was really tough after that point to get back into it.”
“Do you like Murray?” I ask.
“I don’t have anything against him,” he says. “I get along with most of the guys. Everybody does what they think is best for them to win but outside of the court, everything is fine.”
“Who would you be closest to?” I press.
“We all hang around together but it’s very . . . [superficial],” he says. “We are not going to have dinner with each other.”
“And if you could?” I ask. “Who would you most like to sit down with? Which of your rivals’ brains would you most like to pick?”
“Federer, obviously, but I admire Nadal for his attitude and his discipline. I really like him in that sense as an athlete. He is really simple and always gives his best.”
I ask him how crushing it would be if he were never to win a slam, but the words have barely left my lips when I offer a retraction. The notion seems absurd.
“I don’t imagine you would feel crushed by anything,” I observe. “You seem far too balanced.”
“Balanced is good, but too balanced? Hmmm, maybe not,” he replies.
“You probably need a few demons,” I suggest.
“Perhaps you should play more golf.”
“That would do it,” he says, smiling.
Marin Cilic will compete against Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Andy Roddick in the AEGON championships at The Queen's Club, starting tomorrow. The tournament will be shown live, every day, on the BBC and Eurosport.