Marin Cilic, Alexander Zverev enter liminal space

As we prepare for Friday’s men’s semifinals at Roland Garros, Marin Cilic and Alexander Zverev inhabit what spiritual teachers might call “liminal space.”

They exist between two worlds, standing in the threshold and trying to move in the right direction. They have both accomplished something notable at this tournament, but if they lose on Friday, they would find it hard to view their respective Parisian fortnights as a complete success.

Cilic and Zverev are linked in many ways, even though one man is roughly a decade older than the other. Both have left major titles on the table. Both have been close to capturing a number of significant wins against elite players but have often failed to deliver the dagger. Cilic has at least vanquished Roger Federer at a major tournament, doing so at the 2014 U.S. Open en route to his lone major championship, a trophy Zverev has not yet won. However, Cilic has logged many more seasons as a pro. One would think that if Zverev plays into his mid-30s, his time will come, with Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal retiring before then.

The Cilic-Zverev connection is not that hard to identify. They have both gone deep into majors, had chances to make big statements, and have regularly fallen short. Yet, in Paris this spring, they have risen above expectations.

Few people had Cilic making his first Roland Garros semifinal, but here he is, the newest member of an exclusive club of active players with a semifinal at all four majors.

Few people had Zverev beating Carlos Alcaraz, especially after some early-tournament wobbles and saving match point against Sebastian Baez. Zverev did not play his best in Week 1, but he certainly played his best against Alcaraz, particularly in the first two sets. That version of Zverev can give Rafael Nadal a supreme battle in the semis.

We have to ask this about Cilic and Zverev, then: Given that they have both exceeded expectations at this tournament, are they playing with house money on Friday in the semis, or do they really need to win these matches to change the conversations surrounding them?

It’s a fascinating question, regardless of your ultimate verdict.

By achieving the box set of major semifinals, has Cilic already elevated himself in the discussion of the best players of his era outside the Big Four (Fedalovic plus Murray), or does he need to beat a not-in-form version of Casper Ruud to do that? Making all four major semifinals is good; making all four major finals would really change how we view Cilic. It’s a high-stakes moment for him against Ruud on Friday.

Zverev is not expected to beat Nadal. Yet, if he can’t win on Friday, will this be his best chance to win a major in 2022? Would his odds be better at the U.S. Open, where Daniil Medvedev will play on his favorite surface and Alcaraz will probably be battle-tested and less inclined to struggle with his nerves the way he did in the Roland Garros quarterfinals?

Zverev’s pursuit of a first major championship has been a rocky one. It can reasonably be argued that if he doesn’t get this Roland Garros title, he won’t win a major in the next few go-rounds. If he still doesn’t have a major by the end of the 2023 U.S. Open (that’s 16 months from now), the younger generation is likely to be much more evolved by then, making his task harder.

Sure, no one thinks Zverev is the favorite against Nadal. He certainly has a realistic chance, but he’s not the one expected to go through. Viewed through that lens, there is no pressure on the German’s shoulders. Yet, any top player without a major feels the acute need to close the sale. Zverev is once again in the Roland Garros semis, just as he was last year. Failure to cross from liminal space into the bright sunshine of major-tournament glory will weigh upon him just the same.

Perhaps the best question of all is this: Will Cilic and Zverev play like liberated and mentally emboldened players on Friday, or will nerves swamp them? We can speculate all day about whether they are playing with house money. What ultimately matters is whether they play their cards right.

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