Marin Cilic picks up a few tennis balls and walks to the baseline. Across court, there are two cans of tennis balls, one on the T and other out wide of the service line. Cilic’s task was to dislodge each with a one of his trademark booming serves. A sizeable audience assembles on the promenade overlooking the outer court Cilic is practicing on, at the Balewadi Sports Complex. A fair number even found a spot on the bucket seats that adjoin the court. And there’s a decent applause when the 6-foot-6 Croat knocks down the can placed wide.
At the Tata Open Maharashtra, the first ever ATP level event the city will host, the world no 6 Cilic is the biggest singles player to be competing. And he comes in with a strong reputation. The Croat already has a Grand Slam title to his name, winning the 2014 US Open, but in 2017, he reached the final of the Wimbledon Championships.
“I would say that in the grass season I was, in every possible way, the best I could ever be,” he says. “I was playing extremely well and had a great clay court season. And then I had a great run at Wimbledon. Unfortunately, I was not able to play at my best level in the final.”
Till the summit clash, the 29-year-old was in scintillating form, losing only three sets (not dropping a single one till the quarterfinals). He was unlucky however, to have come up against a resurgent and in-form Roger Federer in the final. But Cilic did start strongly, keeping up the pace with the Swiss till blisters on his foot slowed him down.
He was near tears at the end of the match, but there was still much for him to take away from his performance that fortnight. It was another gutsy performance by the perennial challenger. “If I can keep doing those things at that kind of level, with that kind of consistency, I think it might happen. It might give me opportunities (to win) other Slams,” he says. Shortly after that run, he broke into the top 5 world rankings, coming up as high as fourth in October. But the lengthy season began to wear him off both physically and mentally.
And by the time he had to compete at the World ATP Finals in London, Cilic failed to win any of his round robin matches against Federer, Alexander Zverev and Jack Sock. “Towards the end of the season, I got a bit mentally tired. I had played a lot of tennis and travelled a lot,” he says. “I felt a bit drained mentally at that critical point of the year. So in a way I learnt a lesson to be a little bit smarter with my scheduling and if I get to that point again, I will look to get more breaks physically and mentally to be fresh till the end of the year.”
The challenge though, not just for Cilic, has become tougher on tour with Federer and Rafael Nadal raising the bar yet again, as both picked up two Grand Slams each in the 2017 season. And with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray seemingly out for a while, there are expectations on the younger generation to challenge the two veterans.
Interestingly enough, Cilic and Juan Martin Del Potro are the only two below the age of 30 to have won a singles major. “I think it just pushes me to be more determined. They (Federer and Nadal) are getting the challenge higher during the course of their career, they have played at an extremely high level in those big tournaments,” he says. “I believe in the last season I achieved great success and brought my consistency a little bit higher.”
After the off-season, the Croat hopes to continue in the same form that took him to his highest world rank, and that much closer to winning a second Grand Slam. The 2017 season though didn’t quite start well, with a shock first round loss at the Chennai Open to the unfancied Jozef Kovalik.
But in Pune, in a newer stadium compared to the one in Chennai, he likes what is on offer. “Chennai is humid, but it’s dry here,” he says. “And the weather is cool. It’s perfect for me.”