Originally Published: February 12, 2014

Yin-yang experience of Marin Cilic

By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Tennis might have the most extreme momentum swings in all of sport -- not merely within matches or sets, but even within single points. And what about a tennis life?

Consider the recent yin-yang experience of Marin Cilic.

After withdrawing abruptly from his second-round match at Wimbledon last year, he played all of two matches the rest of the season -- both in Paris in October. That came after he served a contentious and controversial four-month suspension for violating tennis' anti-doping program.

Marin Cilic
ATPWorldTour.comWith former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic by his side, Marin Cilic is playing stellar tennis.
Now, less than two months into the 2014 season, Cilic finds himself one of the hottest players in the game. Buoyed by the addition of a celebrated new coach, the inimitable Goran Ivanisevic, Cilic was one of only two ATP World Tour players to enter this week with 13 match victories. You could see Fabio Fognini coming, based on his best-ever No. 16 finish at year's end. But few saw Cilic, 25, making this kind of early run.

For in late October, because of enforced inactivity, his ranking had fallen to No. 47. He finished the season at No. 37, his lowest since 2007, when he was still a teenager. Then, in the span of two matches in Rotterdam last week, Cilic defeated two top-10 players -- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray -- and reached his second straight final.

"That's a huge boost of confidence," Cilic said Tuesday from the Delray Beach Open, "knowing with my game I can beat the best."

Cilic is a marvelous athlete, but the spidery 6-foot-6, 180-pound Croatian somehow never quite seemed to play to the sum of his parts. He has always been a thinking man's player, sometimes to his own detriment.

Ivanisevic, who still finds time to play the Champions Tour, was ecstatic with Cilic's performance in Rotterdam.

"This is so great for Marin to beat two top-10 guys in the same week, especially Andy, because he is always struggling against him," Ivanisevic said after losing to Jan-Michael Gambill on Friday in Delray Beach. "It's great. I'm really happy for him."

The drug scandal was difficult to sort out. This much we know: On June 10, the International Tennis Federation informed Cilic that he had tested positive the month before at the BMW Open in Munich for the banned stimulant nikethamide. Cilic admitted ingesting an over-the-counter glucose supplement before the tournament, but argued that because it had happened five days before the tournament it was not technically illegal because nikethamide is banned during competition. Cilic was issued a nine-month suspension.

Subsequently, in September, the ITF amended its test finding to include only N-ethylnicotinamide, which is a byproduct of nikethamide -- and not a banned substance. The Court of Arbitration for Sport set aside the original suspension and replaced it with time served, four months.

When Cilic was asked what he wanted tennis fans to know about that episode, he responded with his longest answer of the interview.

"Well, what I want them to know is that I never tried to take something on purpose. It happened accidentally. What really happened was there was the substance in this glucose bottle and it was banned in competition. The last day I took the tablets was five days before my first match in Munich, so it was out of competition and perfectly legal to take these tablets. And then they say there was no banned substance -- it was just a satellite.

"So for me, I had already missed four months and nobody could bring that back. You can think of it as a gray area. What's most important is that I played again last year and I'm looking forward to the rest of this year."

Cilic was disappointing at the Australian Open, losing to Gilles Simon in the second round. But two weeks ago in his home country, playing at Zagreb, Croatia, he ran the table, defeating 12th-ranked Tommy Haas in the final. Then in Rotterdam, he wrecked Tsonga and Murray in straight sets before losing to Tomas Berdych, his third consecutive top-10 opponent, in the final.

It was reminiscent of his back-to-back defeats of top-10 players Andy Roddick and Juan Martin del Potro in the 2010 Australian Open. Those wins propelled him into the semifinals, where he eventually lost to Murray. That remains his best effort in a major.

In 2005, Cilic was ranked the world's No. 2 junior -- after American Donald Young. He worked his way up the rankings ladder relatively quickly; four years ago, Cilic blazed into the top 10 as a 21-year-old. With no points to defend starting with Wimbledon in late June, he could make another run toward the top.

Greg Garber

Senior Writer
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Five questions with Marin Cilic

ESPN.com caught up with Marin Cilic between practices on Tuesday, the day before his first match at Delray Beach, Fla.

ESPN.com: You played 10 matches in 14 days -- and won nine of them. How do you explain your recent success?

Cilic: For me, I think it always starts with Zagreb. I always play well at home. Usually when I play well, my form rises up. I have to say I worked a lot with Goran [Ivanisevic] in the offseason and I hoped it would click for me in Australia. It just happened to click for me these two weeks.

Marin Cilic
Chris Hyde/Getty ImagesMarin Cilic credits his recent success to a refined, simplified serve.
ESPN.com: You beat two top-10 players back to back. What did that do for your confidence?

Cilic: [Laughing] It shows me how well I'm playing and that I'll be a big threat to these guys.

ESPN.com: What specifically are some of the things you've been working on with Goran Ivanisevic?

Cilic: We're working a lot on the serve. That's the biggest difference I can feel in my game. Goran is pushing me to be more aggressive and spend more time on the net. Those things are helping me to be better. Sometimes in the past, when I was in tough matches, I did not have that confidence. Now things are easier in difficult moments.

ESPN.com: What exactly has he done with your serve?

Cilic: He has simplified it a lot. I used to bend a lot in my knees and sometimes that made it difficult on my back. Now I don't bend as much and it's more simpler and easier for me. When I get out of the rhythm now, I can get back quicker. And because the serve is quicker -- I hit it earlier in the air -- it helps with aces and free points.

ESPN.com:How important is this year for you after last year's four-month suspension?

Marin Cilic: Extremely important. I'm really eager to play well. I was not sitting at home all that time. I was training a lot with Goran, because I was expecting to play soon. That time off was a big help to see what I needed to do. It was a very good moment to play in Paris. My goals are to be back, obviously, in the top 10. I want to win a Grand Slam and I am working on that. But I have to stay on the ground and take it set by set and tournament by tournament. It's definitely going to take some time, but I feel with Goran and my team around me, I can do it.


Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.