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2006.02.07. – Jeffrey Lesser

Up Close and Personal with Newest Croatian Tennis Sensation Marin Cilic

 Men’s tennis returned to Zagreb this week for the first time in nine
years. Along with the PBZ Zagreb Indoors came a chance for Croatia to
showcase its players. Croatia’s three marquee players, Ivan Ljubicic,
Mario Ancic, and Ivo Karlovic, were all featured, and Ljubicic actually
put together terrific tennis to win the event.  However, the
biggest story of the tournament was of the player who received a
special wild-card invitation to the tournament- 17-year-old Marin
Cilic, the 585th-ranked Zagreb resident. Fans may remember Cilic, the
2nd best Junior in the world, as the boy who won the 2005 French Open
Junior Championships. To put it in fewer words, he is the future of
Croatian tennis.

           Cilic had played only one ATP match in his
entire career, which was at the Croatian Open in Umag, where he was
also a wild-card invite. In that match, Marin lost to 73rd-ranked
Kristof Vliegen of Belgium, 7-5 6-2. In the first round at the Zagreb
Indoors this past week, Marin was given an even tougher task- to play
the 7th seed and 25th-ranked player in all the world, Igor Andreev of
Russia. The extreme underdog, Marin Cilic showed his potential to be a
great player, as he shocked the tennis world by defeating Andreev. In
the second round, Cilic even had a one-set advantage over 55th-ranked
Andreas Seppi of Italy before losing, 4-6 6-4 6-4. In his performance,
Marin showed that the future for Croatian tennis is shining brighter
than ever.

had the opportunity to meet with and interview Cilic at the 2005 US
Open. In our sit-down conversation, I learned much about Marin’s
inherent desire to succeed and found out that he truly has what it
takes to be a great pro. 

First, we talked about the French Open. He conceded that he was not
confident that he could win the French Open until he reached the
semifinals.  While I was extremely impressed by his results at the
Juniors level, Marin downplayed his past. He said that it was far
easier to win on clay in the Juniors, because there are no real clay
court specialists, whereas in the pros, it is a different story.
 Cilic, who practices on clay courts in the hot Croatian weather and on
hard, indoor courts for the remaining six months of the year, had past
experience on clay that proved vital during the tournament. He
continued to put his success into perspective rarely seen in a kid his
age. "Juniors in Grand Slams are good to improve your game," he
remarked. Not dwelling on Juniors success, Marin seems to look towards
life as a pro.

This professional mindset was never more evident than when I asked him
about his favorite match he ever played. I expected to hear that
winning the French Open Juniors was his greatest moment to date.
However, he had another response in store. Marin said that his favorite
match was his only pro match, the "big experience" against Vliegen. His
greatest moment was his only professional moment. This sophisticated
answer showed unbelievable poise and determination to become a great

said he is also willing to put in the hours necessary to succeed at the
professional level. He currently practices about five hours every day
and "will do a lot in my training" to become stronger physically in the
next few years. Marin wants to improve his serve, adding power and
placement.  Even though he plans to be a hard-serving baseliner (much
like the man off whom he models his game, Marat Safin of Russia), Cilic
wants to improve his volleying. He considers his current groundstrokes
strong enough to enable him to compete at a high level in the pros.

Marin said that the main difference between himself and professionals
is his lack of mental strength.  "Professional players are very calm,"
he said, whereas he occasionally throws his racket.  However, mental
toughness comes with experience.  Marin believes that he could have
defeated Vliegen at Umag, except that due to his lack of match
experience, Cilic was "a little nervous" playing in front of his
country. I brought to his attention that Andrew Murray, the Brit who
Marin defeated at the semifinals of the French Open Juniors, has been
achieving success at the professional level. He said that this success
happened as a result of Murray playing lots of challengers and futures
events. Cilic resolved that in 2006 he "will try to play more Futures
and Challengers" in order to gain match play experience and mental
toughness, as well as valuable ranking points. He plans to officially
turn pro and ditch the Juniors after succeeding in the Futures and
Challengers events.

By dismissing most of his Juniors success as mere practice for the
pros, Marin Cilic has showed he is ready for the pros and ready to
commit his life to becoming a better tennis player.  Still, while he is
playing on the tour, he is separated from his parents and brothers. 
Being on the road means that there is "not a lot of time for friends
and family," but Marin is prepared to sacrifice this to become a
successful pro.

This past week, Marin Cilic confirmed my belief that he has what it
takes to become a fantastic pro.  Forget about Futures and Challengers.
After beating Igor Andreev and giving Andreas Seppi all he could handle
in the second round, Marin Cilic proved that he is not only the future
of Croatian tennis, but also the present.

article recomended by Katarina Tepesh

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