Marin Cilic won the 2013 Zagreb Indoors tournament on Sunday, besting Austria's Jurgen Melzer 6-3, 6-1. The win wasn't unlikely by any stretch of the imagination—Cilic was the top-seeded player in the field—but it does beg a salient question:
Is Marin Cilic capable of becoming the next big thing in tennis?
The reasons for cynicism are manifold. This is the third time Cilic has won in Zagreb—a Croatian city where he did most of his training as a kid—and never before has he been able to capitalize in bigger settings. Plus, the gulf between tennis' big four (Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murry) and the rest of the field is bigger than that of any other sport—perhaps ever.
But that accomplished quartet can't reign supreme forever, right? And when one or more eventually starts to regress, someone needs to step up and take his place. Why can't Cilic be that guy?
At 24 years of age, the bouncy Croatian is currently ranked 12th in the world, but he's climbed as high as ninth in his career. He's also younger than all 11 players ranked ahead of him (though he barely edges out Juan Martin del Potro by just a few days) which gives him plenty of room to grow.
Cilic burst onto the scene in 2009 when he beat then-No. 2 Andy Murray in the fourth round of the U.S. Open. And though he promptly lost in the quarterfinals, he followed that showing up with a trip to the semis in the 2010 Australian Open.
Big-tournament success: Check.
But that begs another question: Why did his young career not continue its trajectory?
And, admittedly, that's a pretty tough one to answer. My answer would have to do with timing. That is, he was coming to the forefront just as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were reaching their pinnacle. How could one expect to compete with that at such a young age?
Now Cilic is in the perfect position. He's 24—old enough to be considered a veteran, but young enough to look spry on the court—and tennis' two greatest stars are inevitably going to start fading. There's a new king, Novak Djokoic, in town, but so what? One is less than two.
It wasn't against the greatest competition anyone has ever seen, but Cilic certainly looked like a man capable of making "the leap" in Zagreb. He lost only one set in his dominant romp to the title, and generally looked a cut or two (or five) above his peers.
Whether or not he will ever assume that mien against his superiors remains to be seen, and it's certainly easier said than done. But for now, if you're looking to bet on a young tennis player to crash the big four, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better option.
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