Marin Cilic‘s gallant defense of his US Open title looks set to end on Friday as he faces Novak Djokovic, against whom he has never won, in the third of Friday’s blockbuster US Open semifinals live from New York. Defending US Open champion Marin Cilic is 0-13 against his semifinal opponent, world no. 1 Novak Djokovic. Will the New York magic help Cilic get his first win? Not many picked Cilic to get this far in defending his title. Since capturing his first Grand Slam in stunning style 12 months ago on Arthur Ashe Stadium, defeating Roger Federer in the semifinals and Kei Nishikori in the final, the lanky Croatian has struggled with a shoulder injury that saw him miss the opening months of the 2015 season and it took him a while to find any form to speak of on his return.
With a run to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon – where he lost to Djokovic – and a semifinal showing in Washington, D.C., however, Cilic started showing signs of, if not his best, then some effective tennis and despite two five-set battles with Mikhail Kukushkin and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga respectively, he has defied expectations to return to the semifinals in New York. There’s no getting around the fact that Cilic’s gallant attempt at defending his title is likely to come to an end against Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, however.
There were a few questions surrounding Djokovic’s form and fitness coming into the US Open, where he won the title in 2011 and finished runner-up four times (2007, 2010, 2012 and 2013). Djokovic made the finals in both Montreal and Cincinnati, but lost to Andy Murray and Roger Federer respectively in those finals and had arm and stomach injuries to contend with as well – unsurprising after a stellar season which has seen him win the Australian Open and Wimbledon, finish runner-up at the French Open, win Masters Series titles in Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and Rome, compiling a win-loss record which currently stands at 61-5 for the year.
Djokovic has steadied the ship – not that it was ever rocking very badly – at the US Open, however, cruising through the first three rounds in straight sets and although he went on to drop sets to Roberto Bautista Agut and Feliciano Lopez in the round of 16 and quarterfinals respectively, he never looked in the remotest danger of losing either match. Indeed, his progress to the semifinals has been reminiscent of how he played at Wimbledon: Not flawlessly by any means, but well within himself and with plenty to spare for the climactic final stages.
Naturally, that doesn’t bode terribly well for Cilic. 0-13 against Djokovic, Cilic has only won five sets in those 13 matches, coming closest to victory in 2014 when he pushed Djokovic to five in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. Djokovic’s last nine sets against Cilic, dating back to that Wimbledon meeting, have been won by the following scorelines: 6-2, 6-2, 6-1, 6-1, 6-0, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. Cilic, in other words, is not even getting close.
Try not to flinch. Novak may have a white-washing head-to-head record against the big-serving Croat, but the defending champion has pushed him closer in recent years. Since the beginning of 2014 Marin has taken Novak beyond straight sets in 3 of 5 encounters. However, if Marin were to win, he wouldn’t be the first player to turn a seriously lopsided head-to-head around on a big stage. If that wasn’t enough, Cilic also had that grueling quarterfinal duel with Tsonga in the heat of the day and also dropped one set to Jeremy Chardy and two to Kukushkin earlier in the event – hardly ideal preparation for a match against the fittest man in tennis.
That’s Cilic talking as good a game as he can be expected to under the circumstances, and he has the underdog’s advantage that nobody expects him to win. But against a player as defensively accomplished as the superb Djokovic, Cilic – even at his best – doesn’t really have the solidity off the ground that allows him to build the kind of relentlessly dominant points from the baseline that Juan Martin del Potro, for example, at his best could muster; and he doesn’t have the variety or clinical execution in attack that serves Roger Federer so well. Unless Djokovic has a serious letdown, and that is an eventuality which occurs more and more rarely these days, it’s difficult to see any other outcome than the world no. 1 progressing to his fourth Grand Slam final of the season.
PREDICTION: Novak in 5 sets
The World No.1 is perhaps not in the best of form at Flushing Meadows this year; Cilic will certainly look to take advantage of that. Expect this to be a titanic tussle and Novak to come through. But Cilic will realize that this is his best chance to get on the board against Nole.
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