Andy Murray has a lot to thank Marin Cilic for. Had not the tall, likeable Croat beaten Novak Djokovic in Paris last week, his first win after 14 successive splatterings, we might not be lauding Murray as the world No 1.
As soon as Cilic removed Djokovic from the draw at the BNP Paribas Masters, the door opened for Murray to make his push for the top. He would have got there eventually but Cilic hurried things along and offered the Scot the chance – possibly his only chance – to claim the much-coveted end-of-year top ranking.
Murray may retain the No 1 spot this week (winning the ATP World Tour Finals would guarantee that) and hold on to it as the new season gathers momentum but he knows only too well that Djokovic will be chasing him from pillar to post in 2017 to get his ranking back again. But, for the moment, Murray owes Cilic a debt of gratitude, not that the Croat will be expecting any favours tonight when he faces the world No 1 in their opening match at the O2 Arena.
“Obviously he congratulated me on the victory,” Cilic said of that Friday afternoon in Paris, “but it wasn’t like he hugged me, and said ‘well done for beating Novak’. Obviously things are still quite open this week so we will see how it turns out.”
In 14 previous meetings, Cilic has lost 11 times but even so, he is still one of only three men to have beaten Murray since the French Open final at the start of June. His straight sets victory in the Cincinnati final earned him his first Masters 1000 trophy and it also ended Murray’s 22-match unbeaten run through the summer.
“That win in Cincinnati is quite a big part for me to prepare for this next match,” said Cilic, pictured right, “and to know that, even with Andy’s great form, I was able to beat him. Definitely I take a few things from that match to help me beat him here.
“It’s a little bit different conditions: Andy has been on an amazing run, he’s extremely motivated, has a crowd on his side. He has been playing well when he needed to, under pressure, doesn’t matter if it is Wimbledon, not to mention Davis Cup as well. He will be extremely motivated this week.”
Also helping Cilic’s cause is Jonas Bjorkman. The Swede was a member of Murray’s team last year, working alongside Amelie Mauresmo, so he can give Cilic an insider’s view on Murray’s games and mindset. Bjorkman started working with his new charge just before the US Open.
“Having Jonas on my side now is definitely a big plus when you come into this match,” Cilic said “but I have to focus on myself and focus on my tennis.
“Jonas is extremely positive, extremely motivated and that is something, with my own game, that helps me to be better at producing consistent tennis week in week out. A huge part of it is to implement a net game and improve that. I am really looking forward to our relationship, hopefully that is going to work great.”
But what Bjorkman will bring from Cilic is for the future; for the moment, the Croat is focusing on the past. If he could find a way finally to beat the then world No 1 in Paris ten days ago, maybe – just maybe – he can find a way to do it again against the current No 1 tonight.
“With Novak when I played, obviously coming into the matches with him, there was always some uncertainty that was present,” he said of his 14 previous defeats.
“I had never beaten him. I had been quite close a few times – I would find a way to play great in patches. But having this victory at quite a critical moment, it just shows that I found a good way to play against him. It is a thing that can help me in the future.”