Marin Cilic has built on an outstanding junior career to become Croatia’s highest-ranked player and one of the brightest young talents on the ATP World Tour circuit. His compatriots predict a Top 10 future, but Cilic is just happy to take his career one step at a time.
Politically repressed by the Communist regime of Josip Tito, the leader of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1945-1980, residents of Medjugorje largely survived by raising livestock, growing tobacco and cultivating grapes for wine in the Mediterranean climate.
Zdenko Cilic was born and raised in Medjugorje, which literally means ‘between the mountains’. His parents owned a number of vineyards and grew tobacco, but the regime made for a difficult upbringing. So when he married a local girl, Koviljka, he was determined that his family would have all the opportunities that were denied him.
With the fall of Tito’s regime, the town of 3,500 residents gained international attention when six children claimed to have witnessed apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in June 1981. Thousands of people made pilgrimages to Medjugorje despite a silent battle between the Communists and Catholics that continued for a decade in the region, which ultimately stifled the development of much-needed infrastructure.
Zdenko worked hard during this period of economic and social instability. As his family grew, he ran a successful private business while Koviljka worked in a bank.
“My father was determined that my older brothers, Vinko, Goran, and I would get the opportunity to play sport, as he did not get any opportunities growing up,” explained Marin, the third of four boys, born in September 1988.
“The town had no tennis tradition prior to 1991, when the first tennis court was built. My friends and I were among the first to play on it.”
But any dreams of sporting glory were abruptly ended with the outbreak of the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina that was waged from March 1992 to November 1995. Medjugorje was miraculously protected from any damage during the war, although neighbouring villages were destroyed.
It was after this traumatic war that Cilic rekindled his passion for sport.
“Right from the beginning I had a talent for sport,” he said. “I would often play football or handball with my brothers and friends in the nearby area, but it wasn’t until my cousin Tanja visited Medjugorje from Germany in the summer at the age of seven that I started to play tennis.
“My first coach taught me the technique for tennis and I started to play three times a week. It wasn’t too long until I started winning a lot of the local tournaments.”
As his trophy cabinet expanded and word of his tennis prowess spread, so did Cilic’s need for specialist coaching and competition among better players in Zagreb.
Goran Ivanisevic, one of Croatia’s finest sportsmen, was asked to cast his eye over the young talent. The former World No. 2 and 2001 Wimbledon champion recalled the occasion, saying: “They brought me Marin when he was 13 and a half to see what I thought. I practised with him a lot and gave him advice. He is a great guy and a great player.”
Cilic remembers that “it was a huge honour to practise with Goran as he was a top player at that time and a national hero. His influence helped me realise how hard I needed to work. As a result, six months later, tennis became the No. 1 priority in my life.”
It was a tough decision for Cilic to leave his family and friends for Zagreb.
“Although the city was close, I had to live with my godfather and his wife away from my family by the time I finished primary school, aged 14,” said Cilic. “It was a sensitive age so they were the biggest help for me as I felt I was at home. It wasn’t easy to live without my parents at that age but I learned some good things for life. If I would have stayed alone somewhere, I would have had a much tougher time to move up.”
Ivanisevic, who predicts Cilic “can be a future Top 10 player easily,” took the lean and lanky teenager under his wing and insisted Cilic visit Australian coach Bob Brett for two weeks during the summer of 2004 at the coaches San Remo tennis academy on the French-Italian border.
“At the time I was not physically strong, but I had pretty strong groundstrokes and most importantly, potential,” said Cilic. “Bob and I worked on everything and it made a big difference when I went to play junior matches. Since then I have split my time between Zagreb and the academy, when I am not competing.
Brett, who took charge of harnessing Boris Becker’s talents when the German was 19 and then did the same job with an even younger Ivanisevic, described his memories of that first meeting. “He was a very good 15 year old, who already had a great backhand,” he said. “He was able to move a player around the court and dictate points, but not with a lot of power. He already had a good understanding of the court.”
While Brett worked hard on Cilic’s technical development and as the intensity of their training increased, the pupil managed to find the time to finish high school. “I always went into school to take tests and exams between my training twice a day.”
By 2005 he was starting to make appearances at ATP World Tour Challenger tennis tournaments in Croatia. It was at a Zagreb Challenger that Ivan Ljubicic, a former World No. 3 and the inspirational leader of Croatia’s 2005 Davis Cup-winning team, first watched Cilic play. “He didn’t impress me much; in fact he played a very poor match [losing to Francisco Costa 6-4, 6-2],” remembers Ljubicic, who ended up winning the tournament. “But the week after, he won the junior Roland Garros title so he must have raised his game significantly. It was then that I realised that he could be very good if he could do play that way on a regular basis.”
Cilic went on to make his ATP World Tour debut as a wild card entry at Umag in July, where he lost to Kristof Vliegen 7-5, 6-2. “It was an amazing experience, but it made me realise that I needed a lot more experience to compete at that level every week.”
That year Cilic finished as the No. 2 junior behind Donald Young, having won four junior singles titles, including Roland Garros (d. van der Duim), with quarter-final exits at the other major championships. “During my junior career I was pretty relaxed,” reflected Cilic, “but I knew it was a completely different game to the senior game. You could win through to the quarter-finals or semi-finals of a junior Grand Slam before you got tested.”
When the time came to wave farewell to junior tennis and compete regularly on the ITF Futures circuit and ATP World Tour Challenger circuit, Cilic knew he would have to knuckle down if he were to succeed in the senior game.
“I know it can be difficult for some players to break through the Futures and Challengers circuit onto the main tour, but I always knew it would not be win, win, win like in the juniors,” he explained. “Some players can get a break down in a set and let their head drop, but through hard work I pushed through and raised my game to the next level. I always set myself realistic targets.
“I can’t deny there weren’t tough moments and weeks. You can’t win every first round match. Whereas older players can get negative and influence the mindset of younger players, when they are losing, I was fortunate that I was always with my coach and players of a similar age – such as Juan Martin del Potro, Ernests Gulbis and Robin Haase.”
Cilic finished his first professional season in 2005 at No. 660 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings. The 6’6” right-hander has since taken giant strides. At the end of 2006 he was ranked No. 173 and finished at No. 71 in 2007. By the start of the 2008 ATP World Tour tennis season he had every reason to feel he could make his mark and reach his first main tour final.
“I came into the Australian Open fresh and positive,” said Cilic. “I’d had a great off-season and I was determined to do well after a number of first round exits late 2007.”
“I played very well against [Nicolas] Almagro and [Jurgen] Melzer, so I was completely relaxed ahead of my third round match against [Fernando] Gonzalez. It was a very big win and proved to me that I could step up against the top players. Unfortunately, I was unable to continue in the same vein. My energy drained from me in the match against James Blake.
He went on to reach the fourth round at Wimbledon in July, which Cilic considered “my best tennis performance. Although I lost to Arnaud Clement, it was a good experience at what I consider the best Grand Slam championship.”
As the summer rolled on, Cilic’s results continued to improve, highlighted by quarter-final showings in Gstaad and the Masters 1000 tennis tournament in Toronto. With the Olympics Games in Beijing and an ATP World Tour 250 tennis tournament in New Haven next on his itinerary, Cilic was in high spirits.
“I had been preparing in Beijing for 10 days ahead of the Olympics Games but lost to Juan Monaco in the second round,” recalled Cilic. “So I went to New Haven, well prepared and fresh. But, I needed matches. I didn’t feel too well the first couple of days, but I received a bye into the second round where my opponent Viktor Troicki retired after the third game. Despite the lack of matches, it helped me to adjust my body clock.
“I found that I was hitting the ball well and as each round passed I began to enjoy the atmosphere. My family back home was following the live scores on the Internet – I know that’s very tough to just watch the numbers rolling – but they were able to watch my 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 final win over Mardy Fish on television. Before the season started my secret goal was to play at least one ATP World Tour final. It was a big accomplishment to capture my first title.”
Celebrations had to be put on hold until after the US Open, where he made a third round exit to Novak Djokovic, but even then his joy was limited. “Days after I returned from New York,” began Cilic, “I was struck down by a facial nerve injury to the left side of my face in mid-September, which meant I was unable to play Davis Cup. I could not practice at all for 15 days from September 15.
“My doctor gave me some tablets and told me that I must stay indoors and out of the wind. My confidence had been high, but the break allowed me to recuperate and eventually I got back in shape and started to work again. Once I was given the all-clear on October 1, I trained for 10 days before playing in Madrid. It wasn’t tough to get used to the pace of matches.”
Cilic’s season came to an end after a third round defeat at the hands of Roger Federer at an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tennis tournament in Paris. He took 10 days off before he started physical work with Ljubo Antekolovic in Zagreb and then he travelled to San Remo for a three-week stay with Brett, where the pair worked on Cilic’s all-round game and approach to the net.
“During the closed-season we made additions to his all-round game and worked on areas that will make a difference and compliment his strengths,” explained Brett. “I believe Marin is heading in the right direction and expect him to rank in the Top 10. To do that he will need more experience against the Top 5. He has had consistency of results over the past 12 months, but needs to continue to improve his performances in the major events.”
The hard graft during the off-season was rewarded right at the start of the 2009 ATP World Tour season, when Cilic clinched the second ATP World Tour title of his career at the Chennai Open. “Winning Chennai doesn’t change my plans for this year,” said Cilic. “It does bring me confidence that I can win a lot of matches in a row, which is important for the big tournaments – where I hope to play my best tennis… and in turn improve my ranking.”
2009 Results :
Singles record :31-11
Singles titles : 2
Doubles record : 3-3
Doubles titles : 0
Prize money : $564,385