Did Marin Cilic Ever Really Decline?

Marin Cilic 2022 US Open

Former US Open champion Marin Cilic is still in the draw in Queens, and while he might not get any airtime as a potential contender, he at least deserves to be mentioned among the top players this season. Cilic has had a resurgent season that has seen the 33 year-old go from #30 in the rankings to #17, and his win over Dan Evans in Round 3 will push him up to #15 at least. That is familiar Cilic territory, though a place he has not occupied for a couple years now. But the rise warrants renewed respect similar to what was given Cilic in the past.

Did Marin Cilic Ever Really Decline?

Cilic has gone through ups and downs in the rankings before, although never for two years, and never because of a decline in skill. He was suspended back in 2013 for a violating the drug policy, and naturally his ranking dropped as a result. But once back on Tour, Cilic quickly reclaimed his former position. The drop that began in late 2019 was certainly different, and once a player is on the wrong side of 30, such a decline seems to portend the end. This seasons’s charge by Cilic is therefore a refreshing counter to seeming age-decline, and pushes him back up to the level at which he lived for the entirety of his 20s.

Cilic’s renewed level not only counters whatever age-doubters there might be, but it also cannot be interpreted as just a matter of luck. He has beaten some good players along the way, including Daniil Medvedev, Cameron Norrie, and Andrey Rublev twice, and has made the semifinals of Roland Garros and the fourth round of the Australian Open and now the US Open. He has compiled a 28-15 record this year, which is not explosive like what we’ve seen from Carlos Alcaraz, Nadal, and Stefanos Tsitsipas, but it’s solid and includes good success at the majors. In fact, he has only one fewer Slam victory this year than Alcaraz, despite not having played Wimbledon.

Age is Just a Number

We are getting more used to seeing late-career excellence, with all of the Big 3 playing extremely well deep into their 30s, and even Andy Murray rising back into the Top 50 with a metal hip at the age of 35. John Isner has stayed relevant through his mid-30s, and Stan Wawrinka was a quality older player until the injury setback last year. Cilic is one of the few players who can be talked about amongst those greats of the last generation, and his career accomplishments are almost identical to Wawrinka’s.

Not everyone makes the comeback, though, whether it’s from injury or other reasons. Kei Nishikori has been unable to reestablish his lofty position, and Dominic Thiem has not yet become relevant again despite his youth, while Wawrinka has been battling injury and age combined. Fabio Fognini and Benoit Paire have dropped in recent years (Paire dramatically), and neither seems terribly bothered by the fall. It may be Cilic’s very will to win that has brought him back, combined with a lack of major or persistent injuries from which others are struggling.

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But Did He Ever Really Decline?

It’s actually fair to ask if Marin Cilic declined at all. He slipped a little in the rankings at the end of the 2019 season, and was still at the same level when COVID hit early in 2020. For the next two years he was not able to regain his lost ground, but these were two years of almost no fans in the stadiums, and with player restrictions during the tournaments. COVID tennis wreaked havoc on some players, particularly those who thrived on crowd support and/or enjoying their surroundings while on the road (most notably Benoit Paire). It’s hard to hold that period against anyone.

This 2022 season has been a return to more or less post-COVID tennis (minus Novak Djokovic), and suddenly Cilic finds his form again and returns to his home in the Top 20. I think that is likely not a coincidence, and it would mean that we should take Cilic as seriously now as we did in 2018 or so. That is, not as a resurgent player with a questionable level that may or may not hold, but as still the same player he was back then.

Age is Just a Number, But it Catches Up with Everyone

The question for Cilic is whether he has lost anything from age. If he is indeed still the pre-COVID version of himself, and if that self never really dipped in skill but just hibernated while the crowds were away and the players were bubble-wrapped, then can he achieve Top 10 status again? Regardless of whether covid was a reason for his brief decline, he is still several years older, and at the age where decline is expected. Will he defy time like his great peers? If Andy Murray can regain the Top 50 with a metal hip, can Marin Cilic regain the top 10.

The road from #15 to the Top 10 is a difficult path, and his next step is one of the hardest, as he faces Carlos Alcaraz in the Round of 16. But even if he never quite gets back to that earlier form, he has accomplished enough in this season of renewal to warrant respect similar to what he had before the seeming decline.

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