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Wimbledon | Marin Cilic takes the long road to renewal and validation

Croatia's Marin Cilic celebrates after beating Sam Querrey of the United States at the end of their Men's Singles semifinal match on day eleven at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, Friday, July 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Alastair Grant/AP photo

So much of life is richly complicated and counterintuitive. A Wimbledon final represents a new achievement for Marin Cilic, and yet it simultaneously marks a repeat occurrence.

Reaching Sunday’s championship match at the All England Club — after beating Sam Querrey in a tense four-set semifinal on Friday — will bring Cilic to a new vantage point in his career. However, this formidable feat matters more not because it is new. It stands out precisely because it owns a precedent in a larger context.

Very simply, Cilic had made a major-tournament final before, the 2014 U.S. Open final he won against Kei Nishikori. Cilic will feel a measure of disappointment if he can’t win a second major title on Sunday, but by making his second major final, he has already taken a very big step up the ladder in the evolving history of tennis.

Anyone who has watched and studied tennis for an appreciable length of time will tell you that, unlike golf, it is extremely hard to win a first major title. Winning a second one isn’t a piece of cake, but it is generally easier to win a second tennis major than a second golf major.

Golf has featured tons of first-time major winners in recent years, the vast majority failing to win a second time to date. The compressed nature of a golf tournament — four days, without having to play a specific opponent (the ball is the foremost opponent, then the course) — lends itself to more random results. Tennis majors — spread over two weeks against seven specific opponents — require the ability to sustain quality play for a much longer period of time, while also demanding that the athletes handle days off (waiting is not an easy thing to do), escalating media scrutiny and, most of all, potentially bad matchups against specific opponents who cause problems.

Winning golf majors isn’t simple, either, but on a broader level, it’s easier to win the first major in golf, the second one in tennis.

While winning only one major is a lot better than winning none, no tennis player wants to be stuck with the label of a “one-hit wonder,” the guy (or gal) who had that one magic run and never lived up to his (or her) promise ever again.

This was the challenge facing Cilic after that 2014 U.S. Open title. Was that joyride in New York three years ago — when he played out of his mind in each of the last three matches to lift the trophy — going to become his only mountaintop moment in tennis?

With the slight exception of the 2015 U.S. Open — when he made the semifinals but then got destroyed by Novak Djokovic in 95 minutes, winning only three of 21 games — Cilic had reinforced the notion that 2014 would remain his only shining moment. The 2015 U.S. Open marked his only major semifinal since the 2014 championship run in the Big Apple. Entering this Wimbledon, Cilic was 1-for-9 in making major semis following his breakthrough in the United States.

What changed at Wimbledon this year? Cilic was handed a very favorable draw: An injured Stan Wawrinka and an injured Andy Murray plus a not-quite-great-on-grass Rafael Nadal were all in his half of the draw. Huge-serving Milos Raonic, big-hitting Alexander Zverev, and a guy named Federer were all in the other half.

This was thought to be Cilic’s chance to make a big run and get to a second major final. This was a chance to show that 2014 was not entirely an aberration, and that it could be built upon and added to.

This was a chance for Cilic to go from one-hit wonder to a tennis feast in which he tasted a second helping of success.

Winning on Sunday would clearly cement this revival and put a stamp on Cilic’s career. Given that two-time major winner Marat Safin and one-time major winner Andy Roddick (among others) are either in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. (Safin), or are about to be inducted (Roddick will be on July 22), one can reasonably argue that Cilic is playing for a Hall of Fame ticket. That’s not a guarantee, but it’s possible.

That, however, is a Sunday question. What matters for the moment is that Cilic has given himself the chance to make history in the first place … and also in the second place.

***

It’s worth devoting a few words to Cilic’s semifinal against Sam Querrey.

The essential takeaway — as it relates to Cilic’s ability to return to a major final — is that it was a wandering, meandering match.

In a real way, then, the match imitated the trajectory of Cilic’s career: A sequence of fits and starts, of teases followed by a lot of cruel disappointments.

Cilic has been an “almost” player at Wimbledon over the course of his career. He led Djokovic two sets to one in the 2014 quarterfinals … and lost. He almost won.

Cilic had match points (plural) against Federer in the 2016 Wimbledon quarterfinals … but could not win any of them. He was up two sets to love, but lost in five. He almost won.

Cilic did not become a new man once he won that first major. He has continued to struggle in the late stages of majors instead of setting a new pattern. Cilic was not facing Federer or Nadal or Djokovic in this Wimbledon semifinal, but Sam Querrey had won three straight five-set matches to get to this point. Querrey had been playing the best tennis of his life, offering legitimate hope that he — like Cilic in 2014 at the U.S. Open — could go on that one magical run to a first major title. This did not figure to be a simple match for Cilic and it wasn’t.

The journey was difficult, which made this semifinal more taxing but also — if conquered — a more satisfying prize.

Cilic fought himself at many points in this match. He flubbed consecutive backhands to lose a first-set tiebreaker after playing extremely well for 40 minutes and matching Querrey shot for shot.

Cilic took a break lead in the third set after having won the second. He was about to gain full control of the proceedings … but then carelessly lost his serve. That occurrence could have haunted him, but Cilic didn’t let that happen, unlike so many of his “almost” moments from the past. Querrey found a groove on his serve late in the third set, buoyed by his ability to recover from a break deficit, but Cilic stayed the course, got into a third-set tiebreaker and made nary a mistake at that pivotal stage.

When Cilic dumped serve early in the fourth set, it appeared Querrey was headed for a fourth consecutive five-set match at Wimbledon. When he took a 30-0 lead on his serve, up a break at 4-3, almost everyone at Centre Court was expecting a fifth stanza.

Cilic — coincidentally, recalling the form he displayed in a majestic 2014 U.S. Open semifinal takedown of Federer — played four letter-perfect points as a returner of serve to break back for 4-4. Querrey did nothing essentially wrong. Cilic simply raised his game, trusting himself to an extent not seen since that one fortnight in New York three years ago.

The difference between the 2014 U.S. Open and 2017 Wimbledon: Cilic stayed at a top level throughout his final three matches in New York. At SW19 in Wimbledon Village, he has had to fight through bad patches and regain his best tennis in moments of truth.

That was what Cilic did at 4-3, 30-0 in set four.

He then held serve twice and forced Querrey to serve to stay in the match at 6-5. Querrey, quite understandably nervous in his first major semifinal — remember how hard it is to win that first major? — double faulted on the first point of that game and made a forehand error on the second. Cilic gained two match points and won the second one.

The second major title cannot be won until Sunday, but on Friday, by making a second major final, Marin Cilic has already separated himself from many other tennis players.

The long and winding road of a career was perfectly paralleled on Friday by this twisting, turning, pendulum-swinging pulse-pounder of a match for Marin Cilic.

Unlike so many occasions when he fell short at the end of such a drama, Cilic learned his lesson this time.

Pressure isn’t exactly free from his shoulders — a Wimbledon final always carries immense weight – but when Cilic leaves England to continue with his 2017 season, pressure will never fall quite as heavily on him ever again.

That’s what making a second major final can — and should — do to bolster this earnest striver’s tennis reputation.



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