There’s a certain symmetry to the news that Marin Cilic is out of the Davis Cup final.
He’s come full circle, as the length of the 2018 season because of Croatia’s trip to last year’s final had a major impact on a challenging 2019 campaign.
The 31-year-old Croat began the 2018 season with a trip to the Australian Open final, losing to Roger Federer in five sets.
But he pushed it too hard, especially given he was trying to manage a knee injury.
Cilic spent the season in the top 10. He posted solid, if not spectacular, results everywhere (winning Queen’s Club). And he qualified for the World Tour Finals.
And then, it wasn’t over. Because Cilic led the Croatia to victory over France, his season didn’t end until Nov. 25.
When the 2019 season began – barely a month later – he was still feeling the effects of the knee and wasn’t nearly ready to start it.
“The last year and a half has been a real struggle mentally and physically for me. Even with all the preventive work and rehab my team and I did, my recurring knee injury has continued to give me problems, and as the season progressed it was becoming more evident that surgery was inevitable,” Cilic wrote in an Instagram post Thursday.
A minimum amount of tennis
Between the start of 2019 and the end of February, Cilic played only the Australian Open. From then through Madrid in early May, he played just four matches (and won just one).
From Rome through the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. in early August, he never won back-to-back matches. After the points from last year’s ATP Tour Finals fell off, he found himself with a ranking of No. 39.
It was his lowest ranking since this time of the year six years ago. And for most of that time, he was a quietly effective member of the top 15.
And he was one of the rare players not named Djokovic, Nadal or Federer to win a Grand Slam tournament – at the US Open in 2014.
But it was evident this season that he wasn’t at 100 per cent. And although he was giving it his all, it also was evident that he wasn’t enjoying it the least little bit.
At 31, and at 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds, the wear and tear was accumulating.
So on the plus side, Cilic said he’s been able to avoid knee surgery. But there’s some patchwork to do.
Year-end maintenance trumps Madrid
“I recently did an ultrasound and luckily the results were better than expected. The rehab work was successful enough that surgery is not necessary at this stage,” he write.
“However, I will need to undergo a few minor interventions which will keep me off the tennis court for a longer period and unfortunately means I will not be able to compete at the Davis Cup this month.”
Cilic’s final match this season was a two-tiebreak loss to Stan Wawrinka in the second round of the Paris Maters. So that means his year is ending a full month earlier in 2019.
He’s having the offseason that the ATP Tour really should have – a solid two-month break, even if half of that is taken up with pre-season training.
For Cilic in particular it can only be a good thing, as he will arrive at the Australian Open unseeded and defending fourth-round points.
Recently married, and having announced he was going to become a first-time father in 2020, the Croat has lots to play for in the final stages of his career.
He can see what many of his contemporaries are still doing. But he can also see how Tomas Berdych and good friend Juan Martin del Potro have struggled physically in the last few years.
Having already won the Davis Cup a year ago is another factor that, you would think, helped him make that decision.
“I will dedicate myself to getting back to form so that I can enter the 2020 season healthier, more prepared, and more motivated than ever,” Cilic wrote.
Cilic-less Croatia short on singles power
Without Cilic, the defending Davis Cup champions (can we really call them that, with the “new” format?) are bereft of singles power.
The other nominations are Borna Coric – himself having had a bit of an off-year and doubles specialists Mate Pavic, Nikola Mektic and Ivan Dodig.
Coric is the only other Croat in the top 100 in singles. The next, at No. 105 this week, is 40-year-old Ivo Karlovic.
Will Karlovic answer the call as a substitute? He has played just one tie since 2012 – the 2016 final against Argentina when Coric was out with injury.
He’s entered in the big Houston Challenger next week – his last attempt to make the Australian Open main draw. With a quarter-final to defend, Karlovic would have to make the semifinals to put himself around the top 100, and give himself a puncher’s chance for Melbourne.
Karlovic played the Charlotteville Challenger last week, and lost in the first round in straight sets to Canadian Filip Peliwo.
Would he answer the country’s call? It’s complicated. And the fact that Croatia is in the “pool of death” with … Serbia and Russia means he might not be a difference-maker, anyway.
Then again, a limited Cilic likely wouldn’t have made the difference, either.
View this post on Instagram
With the 2019 season finished, I wanted to share an update with you all. The last year and a half has been a real struggle mentally and physically for me. Even with all the preventive work and rehab my team and I did, my recurring knee injury has continued to give me problems, and as the season progressed it was becoming more evident that surgery was inevitable. I recently did an ultrasound and luckily the results were better than expected💪🏼💪🏼. The rehab work was successful enough that surgery is not necessary at this stage, however, I will need to undergo a few minor interventions which will keep me off the tennis court for a longer period and unfortunately means I will not be able to compete at the Davis Cup this month 🙁. I am extremely disappointed by this, but I believe in my teammates and will be their most devoted fan 🇭🇷. In the meantime, I will dedicate myself to getting back to form so that I can enter the 2020 season healthier, more prepared, and more motivated than ever. Thank you all for your constant support and I look forward to seeing you back on tour in 2020. ⠀ .⠀ .⠀ #teamCilic #iznadsvihhrvatska