Former US Open champ Marin Cilic ready for the long climb back to top of men's tennis

Croatia's Marin Cilic during the 2021 Australian Open.
Croatia's Marin Cilic during the 2021 Australian Open. (PHOTO: Brandon Malone/AFP via Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — Since 2010, there have been just seven different men's singles grand slam champions in tennis – and one of them is gracing this week's Singapore Tennis Open at the OCBC Arena.

Yet, only the most ardent tennis fans would recall Marin Cilic's 2014 US Open win among Novak Djokovic's 17 triumphs or Rafael Nadal's 14 titles.

Perhaps it was because the Croat did not go on to become a dominant force in the sport. In fact, he had slowly faded away in the ensuing years – he has not won a tournament since the 2018 Queen's Club Championships in London, while his rankings have tumbled from a career-high world No. 3 to No. 43.

Nonetheless, the 32-year-old is not about to call time on his successful career yet. In fact, he believes he can still improve his game, and make his way back up the world rankings.

"I had some incredible years during my career, but still as a player I feel there is space for them for development, I feel that I can still improve on my serve, my shots or my movement," he said during an online media conference on Monday (22 February).

"Even if it's just 1 per cent that I can improve, I feel there is some space, so that's my goal. I feel there is still some great improvements left in me, and I'm looking forward to the next four or five years."

Rise from small Bosnian town to peak at US Open

It just about sums up Cilic's gutsy rise from a small town in southwest Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he learnt his tennis basics in a court in his backyard, built by his father. He subsequently left his hometown in 2004 to train with Croatian great Goran Ivanisevic's coach in Italy, and developed a reputation as an aggressive baseliner with a lethal serve.

After several years of slogging around the ATP circuit, Cilic hit his career peak in 2014, beating Japan's Kei Nishikori to land one of tennis' biggest prizes – the US Open. He was also runner-up to all-time great Roger Federer in two more grand slam tournaments – the 2017 Wimbledon and the 2018 Australian Open – and also claimed the 2016 Cincinnati Masters by beating Britain's Andy Murray.

Despite enduring a lean spell since 2019, the Croat still believes he can return to the heights he had enjoyed in the mid-2010s.

"What I'm focusing at right now is just to try to get back to my good form I dropped in last two seasons," he told Yahoo News Singapore.

"I'm trying to just reset a little bit with my mind. When you lose your matches, you start to doubt yourself, but I'm just trying to focus on positive things. I spent the last few months with my family, and had some good preparations. This is the best I'm feeling mentally, so I'm focusing all my energy into improving myself. Hopefully the next few years would be successful."

Facing Japan's Taro Daniel in last-16

After losing in the first round of the just-concluded Australia Open to Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov, Cilic decided to keep on playing to get some matches under his belt early in this season – which was why he signed up for the Singapore Open.

He is the third seed at the ATP 250 tournament – behind French world No. 36 Adrian Mannarino and Australian world No. 39 John Millman – and will face Japan's Taro Daniel in the last-16 on Wednesday.

It will be the first steps of Cilic in his long road to be back among the top of men's tennis, but the eloquent Croat insisted that he is ready to give it his best shot.

"It's a time for me to get some matches in to get into match form and that's why I decided to come here. I feel it's a great week to play," he said.

"I feel really, really positive."

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