Continuing our Season In Review series, ATPWorldTour.com revisits the fiercest rivalries of 2018. Today we feature Marin Cilic vs. Novak Djokovic.
Marin Cilic and Novak Djokovic were both aiming for big pushes in 2018 — one to break into the Top 2 for the first time, the other attempting to return to his peak performance days. Their four FedEx ATP Head2Head clashes — at the Fever-Tree Championships, the Western & Southern Open, the Rolex Paris Masters and the Nitto ATP Finals — showcased precisely what confidence and form can do to transform a match in a matter of points.
While Djokovic had won his first 14 matches against Cilic, the Croatian finally snapped the streak in November 2016 with a 6-4, 7-6(2) quarter-final victory at the Rolex Paris Masters. Fast forward 18 months and Cilic, back in the familiar surroundings of The Queen’s Club in west London, where he lifted the 2012 Fever-Tree Championships trophy, was hungry for success once more.
In the afterglow of a runner-up finish at the Australian Open in January, which saw him rise to a career-high No. 3 in the ATP Rankings, Cilic came face-to-face with Djokovic, whose form had flickered (a 6-6 start to June 2018) following his return from a long-time elbow injury.
In an encounter that lasted almost three hours, Cilic highlighted his grass-court pedigree and a resurgent Djokovic his shot-making ability in a thrilling high-quality final – one of the matches of the 2018 ATP Tour season. Cilic, on the brink of defeat at 4-5, 30/40 in the second set, landed a powerful serve out wide, then overcame a 1/4 deficit in the tie-break en route to a 5-7, 7-6(4), 6-3 victory at the Fever-Tree Championships. Read More & Watch Highlights
"I was just trying to stay mentally in it," said Cilic, after capturing his first ATP Tour title since May 2017 in Istanbul. "And definitely, it was an extremely tough match. No breaks for me until that last [return] game. I definitely feel relieved that I won it and what a great week."
Djokovic, who had reached his maiden final at the grass-court event in 2008, falling to Rafael Nadal in a tight two-hour, 16-minute battle, admitted, "He deserved to win. It's a tough loss for me today, obviously. But I have to see it from a positive side. I haven't played a final at any event in almost a year, so this felt great."
Having lost his serve just once en route to the title match, his performances at The Queen’s Club proved to be a springboard for Djokovic to a remarkable second half of the season.
On 18 August, Djokovic met Cilic once more at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. But the Serbian was transformed, a different proposition entirely, having won 13 of his past 14 matches that included his fourth trophy at Wimbledon. In yet another enthralling encounter, Djokovic gave himself a shot at history with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 semi-final victory over Cilic in two hours and 32 minutes. Read More & Watch Highlights
For all his recent success, Djokovic considered his serve “still a work in progress.” He won just eight return points in the first set, but broke twice for an early advantage, before Cilic took a 5-1 lead to gain the momentum.
Djokovic took control of the decider when he broke in the eighth game, then later explained, "There are days where I'm able to serve, consistently well throughout the match. There are days when it goes up and down."
As a five-time runner-up in Cincinnati, Djokovic added, "Obviously this time I'm hoping that I can get my hands on the trophy. History is also on the line and I'm aware of that and that motivates me even more."
One day later, Djokovic did just that, beating Roger Federer to become the first player to complete the Career Golden Masters of all nine ATP Masters 1000 crowns (since the tournament series was established in 1990).
In the final week of the regular ATP Tour season, Djokovic had Cilic’s number again in a hard-fought 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 quarter-final victory at the Rolex Paris Masters. Cilic capitalised on Djokovic’s service woes to take a 2-1 lead in the decider, however, after Djokovic broke his racquet in frustration in the next game, the momentum shifted.
Afterwards, Djokovic explained, “This was the hardest match for me. Cilic has a lot of skills. He's powerful. He's very efficient on his serve. It's not easy to play such a player who is so aggressive. This match was a great challenge. It's a great thing to have a win tonight. I'm getting confidence from this.”
Two weeks later at the Nitto ATP Finals, Djokovic ended Cilic’s season with a 7-6(7), 6-2 victory at The O2 in London, when the Serbian saved one set point at 5/6 in the tie-break of the one-hour and 35-minute encounter. Djokovic’s 14-match winning against Top 10 opponents came to an end against Alexander Zverev in the title match on 18 November, but since his runner-up finish to Cilic at the Fever-Tree Championships on 24 June, the 31-year-old won 35 of his 38 tour-level matches.
In addition to four big titles, his haul helped him to become the first player to be ranked outside the Top 20 to finish the same season at No. 1 in the history of the ATP Rankings.
Cilic vs. Djokovic: 2018 Meetings
| London/Queen's Club
|| 5-7, 7-6(4), 6-3
|| 6-4, 3-6, 6-3
|| 4-6, 6-2, 6-3
| Nitto ATP Finals
|| 7-6(7), 6-2