Marin Cilic was a ‘tweener, a man without a campaign. Breaking onto the tour in 2005, the Croat was sandwiched between the ATP’s ‘New Balls Please’ and ‘#NextGen’ initiatives, brand-less but not lacking purpose. The Class of ’05 was a talented one, for sure, with names like Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro joining Cilic.
Just because they didn’t have a snappy slogan or hashtag catchphrase doesn’t mean they weren’t bound for glory on tennis’ biggest stages.
All three of the aforementioned have scaled the sport’s highest peaks. In fact, there’s a collective five Slams between them. But even Cilic will tell you, you can’t rest on your laurels. There’s always a new generation waiting in the wings. If you don’t keep pushing forward, updating your arsenal, you’ll be left behind in a hurry.
“In tennis, if you’re not improving, you’re getting worse as a player, because everyone else is improving,” observed Cilic. “The game is improving. There are a lot of youngsters coming up playing great tennis, so you have to always find a way to get better and better.”
Denis Shapovalov, he of the whippy, one-handed backhand, Israeli-Canadian roots and ill-fitting ballcap, is just the kind of youngster to which Cilic is referring. Just 19, the newcomer is already residing on the outskirts of the Top 20, with wins over del Potro, Rafa Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, countryman Milos Raonic and Tomas Berdych on his resume.
Despite a straight-sets, 6-4, 6-2 win over Shapovalov last year in Basel in their only head-to-head, Cilic, the world No. 11, likely won’t take the challenge lightly when they face each other on Tuesday at the BNP Paribas Open.
“It’s a tough one,” said Shapovalov. “I played him once before, so I kind of have a feel for him going into the match, but he’s a tough player. So I’m expecting a battle. I’m looking forward to it.”
Shapo pushed aside Steve Johnson, 6-3, 6-4, in the second round in what is effectively a home tournament for the Southern Californian, a former USC standout. Cilic advanced with a 6-3, 6-4 win of his own, coming against Serb Dusan Lajovic.
Shapovalov, coached by his mother, Tessa Shapovalova, and Rob Steckley, will look for the rare opening on Cilic’s serve. And if he can play the type of steady, mostly error-free ball he played against Johnson, he might just stand a chance. But Cilic won’t hand it to him. He’ll have to work for it.