While the tennis world is focused on Rafael Nadal’s comeback in Brisbane this week, another Grand Slam champion, Marin Cilic, is playing his first tournament after an injury-ravaged 2023 during which he thought his career might be over.
When the 2014 US Open champion injured his right knee almost exactly a year ago at the Pune tournament in India, he had no idea it would herald 12 months of pain, surgery, rehab and reflection.
But the big-serving Croatian is back on court in Hong Kong this week, wondering if the long months of treatment and the hard work to come back have all been worth it.
“Who knows?” the 6ft 6in (1.98m) Cilic told AFP at Victoria Park, the venue for this week’s Hong Kong Open.
“It was an interesting year that stopped right at the beginning,” he said.
“I had a surgery on the meniscus and also there was an issue with the cartilage.”
Cilic began the year on the up, having in 2022 broken back into the world’s top 15 for the first time since 2019, but his inaction has seen him slide to 674th.
He faces a tough assignment in his comeback match when the first round in Hong Kong gets under way on Monday, having drawn Germany’s world number 25 Jan-Lennard Struff.
“Definitely a difficult opponent, especially for the start of the new season for me—and for him,” Cilic smiled.
“We’ve known each other for many years and we are really great friends. So definitely it’s going to be a big challenge, a big task.”
It’s an important barometer for Cilic as he tries to get some miles into his legs ahead of the Australian Open, which begins in two weeks.
Cilic has enjoyed success at the first Grand Slam of the year, coming within a whisker of winning in 2018 when he lost an epic five-set final to Roger Federer.
“I had some chances there,” recalled Cilic, who had beaten the Swiss great in the semi-finals on the way to his lone Grand Slam title in New York four years earlier.
“I had a break point at the beginning of the fifth and, you know, it went away. But I would say that period and the months prior to that were probably the best of my career.”
As he looks ahead to the 2024 season, Cilic is not setting himself any goals.
“For many years on tour I’ve been blessed without having any big injuries,” he said.
“If there is going to be an opportunity for me to come back, then maybe I can be even more hungry or a little bit more motivated.
“If I have the opportunity to play I’ll be really happy. If not, if things go sideways or go wrong, you know, that’s still OK.”
Cilic is 35, so did he fear that the injury might bring a sad end to a career that saw him become one of the few players to break the Grand Slam monopoly of Novak Djokovic, Federer and Nadal?
“I had that thought, yeah,” Cilic admitted, especially after his first comeback attempt, at Umag in Croatia in July, lasted just one match as the knee flared up again.
It prompted some soul-searching and a difficult decision on whether to undergo more surgery, which would have meant the prospect of another 10-12 months out.
“I decided not to, and the last couple months have been quite good,” Cilic said. “I never lost faith.”
The break gave him time to reflect on how life might change once his career is over, having been playing since the age of seven and turning pro in 2005.
“It can be a time to look at the bigger picture. It was funny because I felt a little bit more like a normal person rather than being a tennis pro,” said Cilic, who has two young sons with wife Kristina.
“I was training and everything, but my mind was completely off the tour and at home in the afternoons I would spend time with my boys.
“Being off the tour gave me a different perspective, that there is a different life.”
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