By Matt Zemek
In his previous four Wimbledons, Marin Cilic never failed to reach the quarterfinals. In his previous five majors before this one, Cilic had failed to make the quarters only once and had reached two finals. Cilic made real strides in terms of telling the tennis world that his career was more than just a remarkable second week in New York in 2014, when he played the tennis of the gods and stormed to a major title.
Cilic, in the past few years, had solidified his tennis existence. The early flameouts at majors sharply decreased. A newfound consistency increased. Cilic didn’t win a second major title, but he came very close in Australia this past January against Roger Federer. He isn’t quite in Stan Wawrinka’s league, but he has separated himself from so many of his peers on the ATP Tour. Cilic significantly burnished his reputation the past year and a half.
One loss to Guido Pella at Wimbledon won’t change that.
Yes, sometimes a bad loss undoes previous good work done, but that can’t be a rule of thumb in tennis or any other athletic endeavor. If match results can reverse verdicts on a regular basis, the initial verdict must not have carried much weight. It is unfair to Cilic to praise him for improving his identity, only to take that improvement away from him on the basis of one stunning upset. That is not what one should take away from this shocker against Pella on Thursday.
Here is the more salient point to make — about Cilic, and about the art of elite tennis in general: Doing something great once or twice is always impressive on its own terms, but the true top performers learn how to sustain results. This is not an original line of commentary, but it matter-of-factly sums up the essential challenge for players once they win a significant championship.
Cilic exists in this realm. Jelena Ostapenko, Sloane Stephens, Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki just joined the club over the past 13 months. Juan Martin del Potro is trying to escape this limitation after an injury-plagued decade following his 2009 U.S. Open win.
Why were the 1990s and very early 2000s such a comparatively weak era in tennis history? Many reasons represent a good answer, but one in particular is the fact that from 1990 through 2004, 12 different major champions emerged who never won a second major title. They were one-hit wonders. This doesn’t take away from the fact that they are major champions and will always own that crowning moment in their careers, but it does place a relatively low ceiling on their larger career resumes. The reality of not being able to replicate accomplishments doesn’t say everything about a player’s career, but it says a lot in comparison to the players who managed to win (at the very least) second titles at the world’s most important tournaments.
Cilic has made multiple major finals, which — as said earlier — sets him apart from peers such as Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who appear destined to never return to a second major final. However, Cilic is still chasing that second major trophy, and after losing to Pella, that wait will extend to the U.S. Open.
Tennis is hard, because replicating big results is so hard. That is the main story for Cilic after his stunning loss to a man who has only two Wimbledon main-draw wins at age 28.
To put a finer point on this line of analysis, one must emphasize a specific detail of this Wimbledon which did not exist a year ago, when Cilic roared to the final and took a big step forward in the tennis community: Cilic faced the pressure of defending an excellent Wimbledon result.
Yes, it is true that in 2017, Cilic received a highly favorable Wimbledon draw and represented a good bet to make the final, which he did. Yes, Cilic did carry genuine pressure through that tournament, especially the second week, when Rafael Nadal was knocked out before the quarterfinals and Cilic became the heavy favorite in that half of the draw. Nevertheless, Cilic was still under the radar that week in ways which did not apply to this year’s visit to the All England Club. This year, Cilic delivered what was — for him — an atypically strong performance against Novak Djokovic (2-14 career record) in the Queen’s Club final. He was coming off the strong showing in Australia and had done a lot of good work to confirm the idea that he had evolved at the majors. Cilic remains largely befuddled at Masters 1000 events, but recent years revealed a newer and more resilient player on the sport’s biggest stages.
This Wimbledon took on a very different feel from 2017, when the Croatian wasn’t exposed to the same severe spotlight. Defending a big result at a major tournament involves more pressure than most situations in tennis. The media relentlessly asks about the previous year’s wonderful journey, and the player knows all too well about the consequences of success (backing up a result) or failure (a truckload of lost rankings points). It is so widely known throughout the locker rooms on tour — in a powerful yet unspoken way — that backing up a big result at a major is a transformative moment for a player, and that the inability to do so elicits many sighs of relief: “Good — he is not becoming a monster. I can still give him a good run when it counts.”
This is the cauldron Cilic entered at Wimbledon in 2018. Yes, he was wronged by the brief restart against Pella on Wednesday night before the rains suspended play for the rest of the evening. Yes, Pella was sharp on his passing shots and hit a few clutch serves in the fifth set when he really needed them on Thursday. Pella was not an idle bystander in this match; he had to take it from Cilic, and to a certain degree, he did. He deserves that much credit. Yet, it is just as clear that Cilic got very tight in the latter stages of this match. He had a 3-1 lead in the fourth set and appeared to have solved the mystery which caused this match to become more complicated.
Then Cilic panicked.
It is true that Pella had to be sharp with his passes, especially from his lefty backhand side, but Cilic kept approaching the net on shots which found the middle third of the court and had no disguise or variation. Charging the net isn’t Cilic’s bread-and-butter play. Marin excels at ripping the ball into the corners from the back of the court on both wings. If he does approach, he needs to push his opponent off the court with a severe angle, extreme pace, or both. Cilic made the kinds of decisions and responses which reveal a player whose mind is cluttered. The match began to move too quickly for him. The fifth set featured fewer kamikaze death marches to the net, but it involved a lot of errant groundstrokes, especially when Pella got close to the finish line. At 4-5 and then again at 5-6, Cilic leaked errors from the back of the court, his typical precision nowhere to be found. Cilic served his way out of trouble at 4-5, 15-40, but couldn’t find the same magic on his next service game.
Cilic, of course, is not the only player to cope poorly with the reality of defending a big result at Wimbledon this year. Magdalena Rybarikova and Jo Konta both crashed out of the tournament before round three after making the semifinals last year. Yet, with all due respect to those players, they had not made two major finals in the past 11 months. They had not made any major finals, period. They had not reached three major finals in a career, winning one, as Cilic had. There was and is a large gulf between Cilic’s portfolio and the resumes of the WTA semifinalists from 2017 at SW19. Whereas Konta and Rybarikova merited considerable skepticism heading into this event, Cilic did not.
Yet, Cilic was ambushed by the weight of the moment… and enough pluck from a determined Pella in critical situations.
Roger Federer, it is true, faced comparatively easier draws in several of his earlier major wins, compared to what Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had to confront. Yet, that is one of the hallmarks of Federer’s career: Though not leading the head-to-head matchups against either Nadal or Djokovic, Federer has been better at beating “everyone else.” The second-round stumble Cilic endured has so rarely visited Federer ever since the establishment of his empire at the beginning of the 2004 season. The second-round loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon in 2013 is conspicuous not because it happened, but because of how rare it has been.
Federer’s history at the majors is easier to admire and respect in the wake of Cilic’s loss: “Before playing Nadal or Djokovic in the end stages, you have to beat everyone else.” Federer beats everyone else and, in the process, is there to scoop up the loot if Nadal or Djokovic don’t join him on the stage in a major semifinal or final.
Replicating results — it is a central and defining challenge of tennis, therefore a lasting measurement of players’ careers. Marin Cilic has certainly burnished his reputation along those lines in recent years. He has refuted the idea (which I once firmly believed) that he was a one-hit wonder who would never do anything notable at majors other than the 2014 U.S. Open. Yet, for all that advancements Cilic has made, he had very little experience in defending big results at majors.
In his first real taste of a Wimbledon crucible — as seen through the prism of defending a prior year’s exceptionally good result — he flopped.
This is how heavy pressure can be, and this is why the Big Three own the places they own — in the present moment, and in the larger run of tennis history.