When one casts his mind beyond the obvious – Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray - while searching for a possible US Open 2016 winner, it is very hard not to notice Marin Cilic, the big-serving Croat. Apart from the ‘small’ fact that he has a proven track record at Flushing Meadows, having already won the tournament in 2014, Cilic has been in fantastic form of late which saw him win his first Masters 1000 title at Cincinnati in August. Let’s see what makes him an outright contender for the title for this year’s US Open.
Cilic had a disappointing start to 2016. He was upset in the 3rd round of the Australian Open which was followed by an injury-plagued clay court season that culminated in a humiliating first-round loss to qualifier Marco Trungelliti in the French Open. But he put up a strong showing in the Wimbledon, reaching the quarterfinals and came extremely close to beating Roger Federer. He had 3 match points against FedEx but failed to make them count. Then he played a major role as Croatia rallied to beat USA in the Davis Cup.
Though the 27-year-old suffered a disappointing Olympic campaign, he roared back to form in the Cincinnati Masters tournament in August. Not only did Cilic defeat Andy Murray in the final, he also ended the Briton;s 22-match unbeaten streak which saw him win the Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics. He showed plenty of confidence in his game. Incidentally, Cincinnati was also his first Masters 1000 title. His uplifting results show that Cilic is a genuine contender for the title at New York.
Right after Wimbledon, where his forehand and return of service had impeded him in crucial moments against Federer when he let slip 3 match points, Cilic parted ways with his long-time coach and mentor Goran Ivanisevic.
He then announced Jonas Bjorkman, known to possess a keen tactical-nous, as his new coach. The results were immediate and encouraging.
Bjorkman’s work on improving Cilic’s return of service was most evident in the Cincinnati final when Murray was troubled by the Croat's brilliant returns. His normally powerful serves as lethal as ever in that match and his forehand also showed signs of improvement.
Incidentally, the straight-sets victory was only his 3rd against Murray in 14 meetings. Not only that he’s hit a rich vein of form, US Open is also Cilic’s strongest Slam. He won his first and only Grand Slam on the hardcourts at Flushing Meadows, where he defeated Roger Federer in the semifinals before taking down Nishikori in the summit clash.
All of these point to the fact that Cilic is coming into the tournament on top of his game.
Form of the usual suspects:
Also working for Cilic is the form of the usual favourites going into the tournament. Novak Djokovic’s aura of invincibility has taken a huge hit following his Wimbledon and Rio Olympic exits. Not to mention the troublesome injury to his arm.
He had to receive treatment on his arm during his opening round match at the US Open against World No.120 Jerzy Janowicz. In a shaky performance, he lost the 2nd set and had to battle back.
Andy Murray has been very impressive of late but Cilic’s Cincinnati win give him will boost the confidence of the Croat if he comes face-to-face with the Briton. Obviously, his Wimbledon conqueror Roger Federer is sitting this one out due to injury. Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro are making their comeback from wrist injuries.
Though both of them look to be full of confidence, how their game holds up in a demanding tournament like a Grand Slam is yet to be seen. Stan Wawrinka is in a bad patch of form currently but the Canadian Milos Raonic could be a genuine threat.
Yes! Djokovic and Murray can never be underestimated, however bad their form is. They remain the favourites for the title. But Cilic has the ability to beat them on his day and is brimming with belief. The Croat is certainly a prime contender to lift the US Open trophy come September 11th.