Playing for the first time since the Australian Open, Marin Cilic has arrived with Marseille with some fresh hopes for a very good season. The 2014 US Open champion had a terrible (at least for his standards) 2019 campaign and fell all the way back to a ranking of world no. 39.
The Croat’s second tournament this year was the Australian Open, an event he was once the runner-up at. While he was far from reaching the final this time around, his run to the fourth round was still a very positive sign. On the way, Cilic took down dangerous opposition like Benoit Paire or Roberto Bautista Agut.
Marseilles R1: Marin Cilic vs Ilya Ivashka
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Partnering Tomislav Brkic in doubles on Monday, he took on his compatriot Nikola Mektic and Wesley Koolhof and lost in the deciding tie-breaker. Before his doubles match, Cilic had a bit of free time and stopped by the Centre Court, catching a good bit of action from one final round of qualifying match. Luck had it that it was Ilya Ivashka taking down Alexei Popyrin in three sets. And it was exactly Ivashka who was drawn out to be Cilic’s rival in the first round of the main draw.
Even if that hour of observation helped the Croat, the 2011 and 2016 runner-up didn’t show it at all in the opening set. Cilic’s groundstrokes couldn’t penetrate the court well enough to get through Ivashka’s brilliant counterpunching. The Croat couldn’t handle the depth and the consistency of his opponent’s ball and never really showed the relentless power that he is famous for.
An even worse sign came after the first set as Cilic had to take a medical timeout for his left knee. The physio got it taped but the Croat’s lateral movement seemed slightly hampered as he went on to get instantly broken in the second set.
Battling it out against the circumstances
But there’s one psychological mechanism that can turn matches like these around. Ivashka, who doesn’t have that much experience at that level, smelled blood. And instead of making him concentrated on getting to the finish line, it made him drop his guard.
The Belorussian was seeking just his fourth top 50 victory, and only one of these came in a completed match. The opportunity to score such a great win was right in front of him, seemingly there for the taking.
But as it often happens with such great champions of the game, that short lapse of concentration was enough for Cilic to get back into this match. And the Croat never let it go again, playing much better to slowly regain control.
His serve was not at its blasting best but what was very important was the variety. Impressive kick serves or sliced deliveries out wide started to bring free points. Ivashka’s unbreakable defense was slowly fading as the Belarusian’s shots were suddenly dropping shorter and shorter. A number of perfectly-crafted drop shots were too much for the opponent to handle.
And after 2 hours and 25 minutes of thrilling action it was the world no. 39 who clinched the victory 3-6 7-6 6-4. It was a nightmare of an opening round and Cilic will be delighted to somehow pull it off.
Tougher tests coming
Next up for the Croat is the fourth seed Denis Shapovalov. Asked about his next opponent, Cilic praised his ending of the season, especially the runner-up finish at the Rolex Paris Masters. While Shapovalov hasn’t been in his best form either, this will be a completely different game against an opponent who’ll try to dictate the rallies much more than Ilya Ivashka. Cilic will really need to up his game before Thursday’s match.
Should Marin Cilic prevail, it’s not going to get much easier. With just how tough the field is in Marseille, anyone who gets through the first two matches will be battle-tested and in good shape.