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Marin Cilic Knows The Sunshine As Well As The Shadow

Matt Zemek

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Danielle Parhizkaran - USA TODAY SPORTS

It is not easy to concisely summarize many athletes’ careers — not when those careers defy a neat and tidy form of categorization.

What does one say about Gilles Simon, so dogged and relentless yet prone to lapses in concentration? What does one say about Marius Copil, so clearly talented yet only beginning to (potentially) find his range and rhythm on a sustained basis as a professional?

Even the Big 3 are not easy to process — not in relationship to each other. Alone, their stories might be able to be digested and explained with great clarity, but in connection to their two great rivals, each man in that trio becomes a much more layered mystery. If the Big 3 were easy to define as a group, fans would not debate their levels of greatness to the extent they do.

At various tiers of men’s tennis, making sense of a career is not simple.

Of any prominent ATP career this century, few are harder to grasp than Marin Cilic, the king of complexity.

I hasten to say at the outset: Complexity is not bad. Complexity is part of life. Complexity invites us to not settle for the easy conclusion if the reality of a situation demands a more layered assessment.

So it is with Cilic, who helped Croatia win a Davis Cup for the first time in 2018, culminating in his two-point tie on the opponent’s soil against France. As I wrote on Sunday — and as I always stress with Davis Cup — this is not something to check off on a laundry list, a “to-do item” one coldly eliminates in a businesslike manner. This is a moment of profound national meaning for Croatia, especially since it was the last Davis Cup, and even more particularly because earlier in 2018, France had defeated Croatia in the World Cup Final. It meant a lot to the whole Croatian team to win the global championship in another sport. The fact that France happened to be the last obstacle was a bonus — for Cilic, and Borna Coric, and everyone else.

Yet, while this is a team competition, let’s not pretend that of the many dramatis personae in Lille, France, Cilic stood above them. His gut-wrenching loss to Juan Martin del Potro in the 2016 Davis Cup Final against Argentina was supremely shattering. Carrying that scar isn’t easy to do for athletes. We can see, in the second half of Cilic’s 2018 season, a lingering inability to straightforwardly finish sets and matches. “Is he going to blow it again?” is not a rare or infrequent question raised during many Cilic matches.

Yet, for all the questions Cilic elicits when he fails to make the ATP Finals semifinal round (zero appearances in four attempts), or fails to go deeper in a Masters 1000 than he could or should, this man just keeps coming back with notable resilience.

For much of the rest of the world, American individualism is a very ugly thing — not on a conceptual level (individualism can and does represent personal striving to break free of repression or groupthink), but on an applied level. No one needs to wonder which American person represents the excesses of individualism more than any other.

Tennis, however — even in a team concept — is an individual sport. (You might roll your eyes and groan when you read this, but, for the 9,734th time, the American sport of baseball is so much like tennis in this way: Baseball is a team sport defined by individual confrontations and performances. One pitcher goes up against one hitter.) Even with Davis Cup teammates cheering you on and a coach at courtside offering advice on sitdowns, the player has to go out and execute the game plan.

Few American artists are more associated with individualism than Frank Sinatra, who dominated the nation’s cultural consciousness during the decades-long prime of his career. You could ask, “Why select Sinatra out of various other entertainers or singers as an emblem of American individualism?” The answer: Sinatra’s life on and off stage was equally bold, consumed by a runaway appetite for success and pleasure. That doesn’t make him one of a kind, but Sinatra represented that way of being as well as any prominent American public figure in the 20th century. Moreover, unlike Elvis Presley — who exists on the same plane of global fame and American individualism — Sinatra also sang songs which were anthems of American individualism.

Purely as a reflection of a cultural ideal, no Elvis song from his own lengthy canon can match Sinatra’s tribute to American individual striving, “My Way,” which concludes with the following lyric:

The record shoowwws…

I took the blooowwws…

And did it myyyyyyyyyyyy waaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyy…

This is American individualism, defined.

It is also the story of Marin Cilic. He does keep taking some very significant and high-impact punches, the punches which have caused many other careers to wither and die.

Consider, in the history of tennis, just a few examples of players who absorbed devastating losses and never really recovered from them: Nicole Vaidisova at Wimbledon in 2007 against Ana Ivanovic. Marcelo Rios to Dominik Hrbaty at the 1999 French Open. David Nalbandian in the 2006 Australian Open against Marcos Baghdatis.

So many athletes in various sports never recover from a major psychic blow. We’re only human, after all. We are not gods or monsters.

Cilic? He takes some very big, fat roundhouse punches to the jaw… but undeterred, he finds ways to keep coming back in a meaningful way. He has, to be very clear, redefined his career such that he won’t merely be remembered as “The guy who caught fire for one week at the 2014 U.S. Open, muddling through week one but then torching the field in week two with untouchably great tennis.”

No, he has transcended that narrow categorization and its accordingly limited narrative arc.

Cilic is a lot more than that.

The complexity of his career is not a bad thing. If anything, it is a virtue… because if his career had been easy to categorize, the negative probably would have outweighed the positive.

I don’t think you can make that claim about Cilic — not now. Not at the end of 2018.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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