Marin Cilic’s road to life as a Grand Slam-winning, globe-trotting tennis professional had its occasional detours, speed bumps and potholes. As a kid, his Yugoslavian homeland was divided by war. His development as a player meant leaving his family behind. A much-touted, 6-foot-6 prospect who turned pro alongside the likes of Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro, the Croat’s promising career was interrupted by a doping ban in 2013. Maintaining his innocence, he took on the ITF and had his suspension reduced. The following year, he returned to the court to realize his wildest tennis dreams, winning the 2014 US Open. Today, Cilic is one of the most respected players both on court and in the locker room, a hard-working competitor who is always in the mix at the top of the rankings.
BNPParibasOpen.com presents Marin Cilic in his own words:
I didn’t feel the war as much as some did. I was just a child. At that time, tennis was just beginning to bloom in my country thanks to Goran Ivanisevic. But in Medjugorje, where I grew up, there wasn’t much of a tennis tradition.
I got into the sport by coincidence, really. My father, Zdenko, came from a small village. Like my grandfather, he worked in the tobacco fields as a kid and never had a chance to play any sports. My parents wanted to give me and my three brothers the opportunity to experience another life. I just happened to show some talent on the court.
The sacrifices my parents made for me and my brothers were huge. We didn’t know too much about tennis. We just did the best we could. I remember when I was 10, 11, 12 years old, I’d come back from school and my father would be waiting for me. He would drive me to practice a half-hour away, and I would practice for two-and-a-half hours while he waited. That was the routine every day. I would play 20 to 30 tournaments a year. My father would take me to those, too, every weekend. It was so time-demanding.
It was a big move for me after primary school when I went off to Zagreb to the national tennis center. I was away from my family, but it was a good opportunity to train with better players and coaches. It came down to financial need. My parents weren’t able to pay for the travel and tournaments. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was really the only option in order for me to progress.
In Zagreb, I was on my own. No one was pushing me. Looking back, it was a big responsibility to have that kind of independence at such a young age. But I think that helped me when I started playing Satellites, Futures, Challengers. It made me appreciate everything that much more. I didn’t take anything for granted. Today, I have that same desire, that same work ethic.
It’s helped me face other challenges, too. In 2013, I went through some tough times. Everything was against me. But because of all I had gone through, I stayed strong. When I came back I was more determined than ever. The time away showed me how much I really enjoy this game, how much I love it. When I stepped back onto the court, I had more willpower than ever.
Then came the 2014 US Open. To come back home to Croatia with the trophy meant everything. It was insane. There were 40,000 people in my hometown, which has a population of 3,000. I never expected anything like that. It was such a huge moment for me, and was so rewarding to make so many people happy.
It’s been an incredible journey. Not having many options or financial support, it makes you hungry. To see where I’ve come from, it’s unreal. That’s why I’ve tried to give back to the sport, to help raise money for kids in Croatia. My foundation has given me a bigger purpose.
If I stopped playing tennis tomorrow, I would be satisfied. I’ve done so much in my career. But what keeps me going is the feeling that I want to reach my full potential. At the end of my career, I want to know that I gave it my all.