PARIS (Reuters) - In the not too distant past, a right arm injury that forced U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic to miss a Masters tournament would have caused the Croatian a great deal of stress.
After being ordered to serve a four-month doping ban in 2013 for mistakenly ingesting a banned stimulant that had been present in some glucose powder he had taken, being out of action the week before he makes his ATP World Tour Finals debut is no longer a big deal.
Being punished by doping authorities even though they acknowledged the 26-year-old had ‘inadvertently ingested nikethamide and did not intend to enhance his performance in doing so’, has taught Cilic to appreciate every moment he gets on court.
So as the Croatian took a break from the tour to heal what he called “a small problem with the bone” which is causing him “pain while serving”, he sat down with Reuters to talk about his incredible season, his enforced time out in 2013 and how his coach Goran Ivanisevic has injected the fun times back into his tennis.
REUTERS: If someone had told you last September that this time next year you’d be a grand slam champion and ranked in the top eight, what would your reaction have been?
CILIC: “I would think it would be an amazing achievement to look at and I would for sure be surprised. But that would not be so unexpected because during last year I felt I was playing really well and of course you need many things to click to win a grand slam but of course it would be amazing to see this season went this well.”
REUTERS: What does it mean for you to be one of the top eight qualifiers for the ATP World Tour Finals this year?
CILIC: “It means a lot especially looking into the situation — because I had not been playing so well in the last three, four seasons. I played great in 2010 and then my form dropped a little bit and since then trying to recover a little bit with the tennis and to find my good form to come back into Top 10.
“This season I played really, really well and my tennis level rose a couple steps and that was what gave me more satisfaction — obviously winning a grand slam is the biggest satisfaction that I have and the biggest result.
“But to compete at the World Tour Finals means that I have been playing well and consistently during the whole season and that I deserve my spot to be there and it’s a great motivation for next year to compete at ATP World Tour finals. It’s the best reward.”
REUTERS: Being a grand slam champion, is it better than you expected it to be?
CILIC: “I didn’t expect the impact in Croatia to be so big because it had a really, really huge impact, it’s one of the biggest sports successes in Croatian history.”
REUTERS: Did you see the 2001 Wimbledon final when your coach Goran Ivanisevic became the first Croatian to win a men’s grand slam title?
CILIC: “I saw Goran’s final while I was in a tennis summer camp close to my home town.”
REUTERS: When you saw Goran winning Wimbledon, did you have aspirations to follow in his footsteps at the time?
CILIC: “Not really, not even close, but to repeat something Goran did you need that kind of scenario, that kind of charisma and that kind of personality from Goran — that’s going to happen only once in history.
“But what I experienced after winning the U.S. Open... it’s extremely nice to have that kind of reception in my hometown.
“I felt Croatian people who are not so close to tennis, it changed their life a little bit, they were connected with this huge success that came into their lives, in their daily routine and it made them happy and made them proud to be Croatian.”
REUTERS: What is Goran like as a coach?
CILIC: “Very natural, very similar as when he was playing, expresses his opinion in any way. Whatever his feeling is, he is going to say it. That’s how Goran is.
“He’s very easy going, he’s not as stressed as when he was playing, he always tries to find right things for me and we still have a really good time but we are also working on the things that we need to improve. I feel there is a really good balance that I have in my team.”
REUTERS: Goran famously watched the Teletubbies during his run to the Wimbledon title — did you have any such bizarre routines during your run in New York?
CILIC: “Ha ha ha I think Teletubbies just happened for him, he did not pick to watch them. Those kind of routines made it more interesting and more fun for everybody in the team.
“My physio, my fitness coach and Goran, they would go every morning to the same place to have the same coffee, same breakfast, same muffin. On the off days we would go to the same restaurant, tried to pick the same practice court, transportations at the same time. It goes on and on.”
REUTERS: Are you superstitious like he was?
CILIC: (smiling and stroking his dark beard) “Me and Goran did not shave since the beginning of the tournament and after the quarters it became a little bit itchy so I said I might shave and he goes ‘you’re near the end of the tournament you can survive another three days you might just leave that for after the tournament’.
“It was nothing we are obsessed about, but it was something we had fun with. When the routine starts, you don’t want to stop.”
REUTERS: The time out of sport you had last year, what did it teach you?
CILIC: “I felt I matured more as a person, I understood what I really wanted and what are my goals and what I need to do to achieve them.
“Luckily I had this group around myself, the team who helped me to make those things possible, with my fitness trainer and Goran we work as a team to do the right things, what to improve on and what is going to be right or bad for me.
“Then once I started to believe that those are the right things, how much I want to put work into it... to become the best I can be. That transformed me as a person, made me mentally tougher as a person and I didn’t want to be held back from achieving the best I can.”
REUTERS: Do you feel you were robbed from playing on the tour for the four months?
CILIC: “Not really. Obviously it was very difficult. I don’t know what would have happened if I had continued to play, you are never going to catch up those four months I lost. In that time I learnt some valuable things for myself, I’m using the time I have the best I could.”
REUTERS: Has it changed you as a person?
CILIC: “I think so. I found out who are my close friends, and those who pretend to be my friends. It made me more aware of what kind of people I have around me.
“It made be a little bit stronger inside of me that I don’t get pulled back by some difficult times or some difficult days.”
REUTERS: Did that time out teach you anything about your fellow professionals?
CILIC: “I was very surprised with Novak (Djokovic). He stepped up for me ... I think rarely you’ll see someone at the top of any sport expose themselves like he did. I’ll be very grateful to him for the rest of my life for the things he said (publicly) and way he supported me.”
REUTERS: Are there things you do differently now, if yes how?
CILIC: “Even in the locker rooms I always carry my bottle around and if I don’t see it I always take a new one.
“(Things like) massage creams, sun creams, I always check if it’s alright. I’ve become more careful with everything, if you burn yourself, that’s what happens.”
REUTERS: How has life changed for you since winning the U.S. Open?
CILIC: “More busy, less time for everything but in one way very nice. In Croatia people recognize me much more, they want photos and autographs.
“I have a different feeling from my own side as I want to play all the time at my best level, I know it’s not possible but that’s my desire. You want to show this was not a one-time shot.
“I was dreaming about winning a grand slam and all my life work, career work (paid off as) I got the biggest reward in my life.”
REUTERS: Where do you keep the trophy?
CILIC: “At home in Zagreb, on display. I have to see it every day.”
REUTERS: Do you polish it yourself?
CILIC: “Ha ha ha, yes, I have to, that’s my friend now.”
Editing by Toby Davis