Big-serving Cilic promises to be a viable threat for years to come

TORONTO -- When the men last played in Toronto two years ago, there was group of young rising players trying to establish themselves. Rafael Nadal was already a top player, but Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Richard Gasquet, Tomas Berdych, Gael Monfils and company were still quite unknown. Two years on, they've succeeded to varying degrees -- and though they're still relatively young, a new group has already arrived on the doorstep. The current working list consists of 19-year-olds Gulbis, Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro, and 18-year-old Kei Nishikori.

Nishikori is a little younger and hasn't yet begun to play a full schedule of ATP events, but he's competed against a few top players this season and impressed them all. The constantly injured del Potro, incongruous as a huge hitter who's most comfortable on clay, is finally putting together a run and has won two tournaments in the past two weeks.

The other two, Gulbis and Cilic, were both in Toronto this week. Gulbis has the kind of bulletproof game that's most likely to sustain a presence at the top -- a big serve, accompanied by a backhand that can create an opening and a forehand that can finish a point at any time, not to mention decent touch and skillful point construction.

His challenge so far has been bringing those strengths to bear over the course of a match and a tournament. He insists he's started working harder and is getting more consistent, but his first-round match in Toronto suggests there's still some way to go.

The winners were flowing early in the third set against Jose Acasuso -- a startling backhand drop shot that hit the sideline and spun away, a reflex forehand winner down the line off an overhead from Acasuso -- but it all came to an abrupt stop when Gulbis served for the match at 5-2. He was broken to love twice, with Acasuso holding steady as Gulbis' ambitious shots deserted him. This time, the backhand drop shot attempt that would have given him match point at 5-3 didn't find its mark.

Gulbis is also a hard man to get a hold of. After passing on an interview request at Wimbledon, he's managed to dodge the one scheduled here for five days and counting. Imagine what it'll be like when he's top-10.

Cilic has been a lot more visible this week, not least for his 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 win over Andy Roddick on Thursday. The Croat is a big bomber with a game that flows outward from his fluid serve -- a deep knee-bend and quick swoop upwards for a delivery usually in the mid-120s. He's solid off both wings -- with the forehand the more explosive and erratic side -- returns solidly and puts into practice all the good intentions about coming in regularly.

A hyper-focused intensity on court helps his 6-foot-6 frame get around the court better than it otherwise might -- his feet are endlessly bouncing, his eyes constantly tracking the ball. If it's a little reminiscent of Mario Ancic, that's no surprise -- on Goran Ivanisevic's recommendation, both went to Bob Brett's academy in San Remo, Italy, when they were in their early teens.

Cilic produced an impressive physical display against Roddick early on, going up 6-4, 4-2 in just over an hour. But his mental poise later in the match was equally impressive for a young player -- after losing four games in a row to drop the second set, he gathered quickly to break in the opening game of the third and later authoritatively served out the match at love.

Roddick came out a little flat, attributing it to lack of match practice over the last couple of months and trouble clicking on the forehand.

"His aggressiveness is what won him the match today," Roddick said. "He took it to me a lot more than I took it to him." He had been "hoping" to see a lapse from Cilic in the third, but none came.

"I forget already what was happening in the second set," Cilic said. "I put myself back together, and I was just thinking to start really good the third set. That thing was, I think, really crucial."

That emotional resilience may help Cilic rise a little faster than the big bomber of the "old" new generation, Tomas Berdych.

Brett was in the players' box Thursday -- he's now traveling with Cilic to some tournaments after the Croat parted ways with his traveling coach in April.

"It's tough to come through all of those things, the ups and downs," said Brett, talking both about the Roddick match and the tour generally. "What's your level of tolerance to the errors, to the missed chances? And that was impressive today, how he was able to get out of that."

Brett is a little too experienced and meditative to make any bold predictions about what Cilic might go on to achieve, but sees a lot of potential. "He's got a lot of ability and he's always been prepared to do the hard work, which is what I think separates people. He has a very good ability to learn, quite analytical, so that combination makes him easy to work with."

By the way, Cilic did allow himself to be tracked down for an interview earlier this week, during which work ethic was a frequent theme.

"I think it's not a disadvantage to be considered as a new upcoming player, as a new top-10 player," he said. "Because I'm young, when I go on the court I don't have so much to lose but I have a lot to gain. So it's a good feeling, but I know I have to work hard and I was doing that since I was a kid, so I don't plan to stop it."

He's a former No. 1 junior who won the French Open boys' title three years ago, but wants those results consigned to the past now he's on the main tour. "I would like to put that aside," he said. "You should be considered as a guy who has a bright future but has to work a lot to make it."

The fact that he took the Roddick victory in his stride is a sign of Cilic's self-belief and long-term ambitions. Cilic has reached the second week of both the Australian Open and Wimbledon this year, and wasn't inclined to name today's win a career highlight. "I played also [Fernando] Gonzalez quite a good match and twice with Davydenko," he said. "So I wouldn't say it's the best one … it is definitely one of the best."

His pleasant but serious demeanor and contained presence on court doesn't exactly bring to mind his combustible hero, Ivanisevic. "I'm very opposite than him," Cilic grinned. "I mean, we all tried to do something [to imitate him when young] but you have to be born like that. For some players it takes away the focus and concentration so I try to be myself."

Being invited to hit with Ivanisevic as a 14-year-old was a "big thing" for Cilic, and ultimately led to his association with Brett's academy. Cilic spent one week there and promptly won a title in his age group at the European championships the following week. He now spends his training weeks there, and his vacation weeks with his family in his hometown of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Cilic suggested doing a Google search on the place because it was "quite famous," so I did. According to Wikipedia, "the town is best known due to alleged apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary which appeared to six Herzegovinian Croats since 24 June 1981, and is now visited by pilgrims from around the entire world as a shrine."

We have to make the usual caveats about injury and the inconsistency inherent in his kind of playing style. But if Cilic can stay on the track he's on now, his hometown could soon have a second claim to fame.

Kamakshi Tandon is the online editor for Tennis.com.