Marin Cilic, beaten 14 times in a row by Novak Djokovic over eight frustrating years, broke the Serb’s spell over him in two sets of high anxiety in the quarter-finals of the final masters tournament of the season here on Friday to put the world No1’s 122-week reign in serious jeopardy.
Andy Murray, who is playing Tomas Berdych later, was left two wins from overtaking Djokovic at the top of the rankings.
Djokovic, below par but dangerous to the end, saved two match points but could not hold off his one-time rabbit in the second-set tie-break and Cilic wrapped it up 6-4, 7-6 in an hour and 44 minutes.
“I played really smart tennis from beginning to end,” the world No10 said courtside. “We’ve had a lot of tough battles the past couple of years and that helped me today. I was really hitting the spots. In the end, a few points are going to decide these matches and I was glad I stayed so cool.
“I’m just enjoying it. I’ve made it to London [for the ATP World Tour Finals] and then Davis Cup at home. I hope I can continue to play this well.”
Suspicions that Djokovic was out of sorts or carrying an injury after a desultory press conference on Thursday evening were given substance in a slow start, but he repaired the damage of an early break. The tournament doctor gave Djokovic a pill after the long seventh game and the Serb was coughing slightly before resuming with a new racket but not a lot of his customary verve. At the point when he might have been expected to impose his will on an opponent he had subdued so often, Djokovic dumped a regulation backhand to give Cilic the set. The utopia of the world No1 had been disturbed for the second time in two days.
On Thursday, Djokovic came from behind to beat Grigor Dimitrov, but 19 unforced errors here, most of them on his forehand, were draining his early potency.
Cilic grew tall in a twinkling, hitting hard and cleanly off the ground, and Djokovic had to fight to stay with him. The Croat had been mentally strong for an hour. Now he needed to trust his game, to keep playing his shots against the best defensive player of the modern era. When broken to love in the ninth game, a weary backhand finding the net, Cilic’s shoulders drooped as of old; but the spring returned to his step when Djokovic double-faulted twice to bring them back to parity.
Reprieved and relieved, Cilic knew he could not waste too many more chances. Djokovic’s dilemma was even more pressing. Five minutes after serving for the set, he went up to the line at 5-6 with ball in hand to stay in the tournament.
He chose to gamble rather than grind, hunting at the net instead of seeking the comfort of the baseline, and handed Cilic two match points with a wayward forehand. He saved the first with a backhand volley, the second with a withering forehand from mid-court for deuce, and raised his arms to the crowd in celebration. When he forced the tie-break with a deft winner into the deuce corner, he was energised again.
Cilic, who had struck nine aces, went for power over caution, a double-fault restricting him to a 4-2 lead at the changeover. He had not been this close to beating Djokovic since taking him to five sets in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon two years ago, and a booming serve to Djokovic’s backhand gave him another four match points, the first on his own serve. This time he did it, planting the final winner into the corner and bathing in the applause of a shocked crowd.
The ballet sequence that brings the film An American in Paris to a wonderful climax lasted 17 minutes. When occasional doubles buddies John Isner and Jack Sock did their thing in the quarter-finals of the singles here on Friday, they stretched their on-court friendship to two hours and 17 minutes, the beanpole marathon man of legend prevailing to earn his semi-final against Cilic.
A match between Isner, the serving beast whose 11 hours and five minutes on court against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon six years ago will forever be his defining contribution to the game, and Sock, his Nebraskan friend, who would later complete his 33rd match in as many days, had three sets written all over it.
And so it came to pass – and lob and chip and volley – the denouement a tricky finish for Isner, who served it out 7-6, 4-6, 6-4 after leading 4-0 in the third. Sock, who reached four finals in four weeks for a return of 12-4 in singles and 14-1 in doubles, still had a doubles chore to complete later in the day, with another American in Paris, Nicholas Monroe.
It’s a hell of a way to make a living.
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