At the moment, Marin Cilic is the best tennis player in the world not named Federer or Nadal. Ranked no. 3 after his runner-up finish to Federer in the Australian Open final last weekend, the Croat has been the focal point of the build-up to this weekend’s Canada – Croatia Davis Cup first round beginning on Friday in Osijek.
A hero in his homeland, the 29-year-old hit a new high with his performance at Melbourne Park – pushing the almighty Federer to five sets in the championship match. He arrived back in Zagreb on Tuesday and was besieged (above) by media after his first practice at the Sportska Dvorana Gradski Vrt arena in Osijek late Wednesday afternoon.
All the speculation has been about whether he would be over the exhaustion and jetlag from his efforts in Australia and the subsequent travel. Might he be given an extra day’s rest and not play the opening singles Friday and then be substituted in for the doubles on Saturday with hometown (Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina) pal Ivan Dodig?
Among those attentively watching Cilic practice Wednesday, from above the court in what will be a TV commentary booth this weekend, were Canadian Davis Cup captain Frank Dancevic (right) and coach Fredéric Fontang.
Like many, they may be coming around to the view that Cilic will indeed play and logically face Canadian no. 2 Vasek Pospisil on Friday while Canada’s no. 1, Denis Shapovalov, will take on no. 2 Croat Borna Coric.
One reason would be that if Cilic doesn’t play Friday and makes his debut in doubles then the no. 47-ranked Coric would become the Croat no. 1 and be slated to play the fourth match on Sunday against Shapovalov. Cilic then might be inserted in the spot that would be vacated by Croat no. 2 – likely Viktor Galovic – for the fifth match. Of course, Cilic could take Coric’s place in Sunday’s first match but then Coric would be out and Galovic (or Franko Skugor) would have to play the deciding fifth match if the tie were even at two matches apiece.
It all gets complicated and even on the Canadian side some are speculating Peter Polansky (above) could be substituted for Pospisil in Friday’s singles because of the latter’s unimpressive record (0-12) on clay since a third round Roland Garros qualifying victory over his present captain – Dancevic – in 2013.
But indoor clay is different from outdoor clay because of the lack of wind, sun and fluctuations in temperature. Traditionally indoor conditions have favoured big serving, heavy-hitters like Pospisil.
As for Cilic, the man-of-the-hour, he is reported to be delaying his decision until the last moment – although his captain Zeljko Krajan (centre above with the other potential singles player Galovic on the left) has to name his two singles player right before Thursday’s draw ceremony at 12:30 p.m. Croatian time (6:30 a.m. ET in Canada).
Technically captains can only legally change their players one hour before Saturday’s doubles or Sunday’s reverse singles but, for example, Cilic could be named on Thursday and then be replaced for a medical reason on Friday.
“Hopefully I’ll be ready,” Cilic told two Canadian reporters following his extended conversation with the Croatian media on Wednesday. “I just went on a regular flight,” he said about his journey home Tuesday. “It was also good to spend that day after the final in Melbourne just to cool things off and get some rest before the trip home. Overall I’m feeling quite okay but here the conditions are different with a clay court and I’m definitely going to need some time to adjust to sliding. We’ll see how it’s going to go with the weekend.”
A veteran of the tour for more than a decade, Cilic was asked if he had learned any secrets for dealing with jet lag (a 10-hour difference with Melbourne) over that time. “My team is always laughing at me because I can sleep anywhere I go,” Cilic smiled. “I already caught the time difference. Last night (Tuesday) was around seven and a half hours or eight hours of sleep. So I’m feeling quite good and even on the flight back I slept most of the time.”
Cilic is widely recognized as one of the nice guys on the tour and that was in evidence again Wednesday. After his more than an hour practice, he spoke to the Croatian media for 15 minutes, did two short TV interviews, posed for photos with a few people including a mother with her infant, and spoke to the aforementioned Canadian reporters for almost six minutes.
As he was walking off he exchanged warm words with Fontang and, with Shapovalov at the back of the court about half a court away, he shouted a greeting to him, jokingly mentioning ‘Team World’ in reference to Shapovalov’s squad in the Laver Cup last September. Cilic was part of Team Europe.
Shapovalov is back on clay for this weekend’s tie for the first time since an opening round qualifying loss to Marius Copil of Romania at last year’s French Open.
He has had some success on clay – and won Futures tournaments in Florida at Weston and Orange Park in early 2016. “I’ve had some good feelings on clay in the past,” Shapovalov said, “obviously winning my first couple of Futures on clay and making the semifinals of the French Open juniors. So I’m more than capable of playing really well on clay. I’ve definitely gotten more comfortable with it. I really think it’s just a matter of time spent on it. I think my game pretty much suits it. I’ve got a variety of serves, I’ve got a good whip on my shots so I can really use the angles and just move opponents across court.”
Movement of clay, especially coming from hard courts, is a major adjustment for players like Shapovalov and Pospisil who grew up almost entirely on hard courts. “It’s different sliding,” Shapovalov said. “On the hard courts I typically slide after my shot. Whereas it’s sort of part of the set-up while when you’re playing on clay – you’re sliding into the shot. That’s probably the biggest difference.
“Obviously the court is really slow. The footing, even when you come to the net, you don’t have as much grip. You have to use a lot more small steps.”
As for the clay court being indoors as opposed to outdoors with exposure to all the elements, Shapovalov said, “I think it’s a huge advantage for us. We grew up indoors so it definitely suits us. I feel like I’ve been able to still hit through the court the past couple of practice sessions even though it’s clay because it’s indoors. The only thing is that the balls do die really quickly, and when they’re dead it’s tough to hit through it. But especially with the new balls, it’s still flying through the court.
“I think being a lefty is a huge advantage on clay. I can really move the guys around and use my angles, especially on the forehand side – constantly keep the guys on the move. I can hopefully start the point off with the forehand, get the guy moving and eventually dictate and get the guy on the stretch and come in and finish with the volley.”
In terms of someone who he might play like on clay, Shapovalov said, “I try to actually copy my game a little bit like Dominic (Thiem) on clay. He does a really good job of just moving the guys around. Then when he has a short ball, he really dictates and plays aggressive. I’ve watched a couple of videos of him playing on clay. When I’m practicing or when I’m on court I’m trying to think of how he would play and how I can match my game to the surface.”
Shapovalov practiced singles with Polansky later on Wednesday, but earlier he played doubles (seen above walking on court with Daniel Nestor – 27 years his senior) alongside Dancevic against Nestor and Pospisil. Nestor, 45, will be playing his Canadian record 52nd Davis Cup tie while for Shapovalov it’s No. 4.
Above that’s Shapovalov and Dancevic at the far end. There were moments of humorous byplay during the practice, all the while both sides played very aggressively.
So everything is queued up for Thursday’s draw at the Sportska Dvorana Gradski Vrt arena. It should provide a clearer a picture of where things are headed this weekend.
Dancevic, in his first experience as captain, will be able to rely on the counsel of Fontang as well as Louis Borfiga, Tennis Canada’s vice-president of high performance, who arrived in Osijek on Wednesday.
There’s always a chess element to all these Davis Cup match-ups – but ultimately who ever hits the ball better and more consistently will wind up winning and earning a spot in the second round April 6-8 against either Kazakhstan or Switzerland. The latter plays in Astana, Kazakhstan this weekend without Federer, Stan Wawrinka or any other Top 100 player.
It’s doubtful any future NHLers will come from Osijek, Croatia, but there is an artificial skating circle in the centre of the city. No one was whizzing around on the blades on Wednesday – and children were skating in pairs with a monitor in front to help out.