NEW YORK – At the 2015 U.S. Open, Marin Cilic hasn’t exactly been treated like a defending champion. He was the first returning men’s champion since Marat Safin in 2001 to play his opening match of the tournament away from Arthur Ashe, and he has yet to play a match at night on Ashe this year. Even 2013 champion Rafael Nadal seemed to draw more buzz at last year’s U.S. Open—and he withdrew from the tournament a week before it started due to injury.
Cilic’s title run as the No. 14 seed at the 2014 U.S. Open was shocking, spearheaded by his straight-sets semifinal victory over Roger Federer. Cilic played the best tennis of his career, knocking off Tomas Berdych, Federer and Kei Nishikori in straight sets on his way to his first Grand Slam title. But this year, despite being the reigning champion, Cilic has managed to surprise us again, reaching the semifinals with a 6–4, 6–4, 3–6, 6–7(3), 6–4 victory on Tuesday over No. 19 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Before the tournament started, Cilic was not a popular pick to repeat his 2014 run. After winning four tournaments last year, he hasn’t won a title this season. Cilic hasn’t been overly impressive in Grand Slams, either: He pulled out of the Australian Open with a shoulder injury and was knocked out in the fourth round in Paris and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. Leading up to the U.S. Open, Cilic’s play was up and down. He reached the Citi Open semifinals but lost in straight sets in his opening match at Rogers Cup. He won one match in Cincinnati before bowing out to Richard Gasquet.
But out of nowhere—or as quietly as a defending champion can make his way through the draw—Cilic is now just two wins away from a repeat title in New York.
“I came to the tournament knowing that I can play well here, that I just need a few matches to get into the rhythm,” said Cilic, the tournament’s No. 9 seed. “And that’s what happened.”
Cilic received a bit of good luck on his way to the semifinals. An opening round upset to No. 4 Kei Nishikori made Cilic the top seed in his quarter. Tsonga is the highest-ranked player Cilic has faced through the quarterfinals.
But reaching the U.S. Open semifinals requires a lot more than luck. In his five-set marathon victory over Tsonga, Cilic showed the powerful strokes and resilience that earned him his first Grand Slam title a year ago.
After Cilic went up two sets to love, Tsonga rallied. He finally broke Cilic in the third set, which the Frenchman won 6–3. Cilic had three match points in the fourth set, but Tsonga fought them off and won a tiebreaker, forcing Cilic to a fifth set in sweltering conditions. But Cilic arguably saved his best for last, firing 18 winners and seven aces in the fifth set to wrestle back control of the match.
Even as Tsonga found his game, Cilic’s play remained consistent.
“I didn’t play poorly,” Cilic said of the third and fourth sets. “Jo came up with amazing shots in the critical points. Especially on all three match points that I had, he played great points.”
Cilic will meet No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, a player he has never beaten Djokovic in 13 attempts, including a straight-sets defeat in the Wimbledon quarterfinals this year.
“This is where [Cilic] loves playing. He loves the conditions on Arthur Ashe,” Djokovic said. “I’m going to try to use that advantage [of] having success against him in the past to my favor.”
Cilic is a long way from hoisting the championship trophy for a second straight year. He’ll have to go through Djokovic in the semis and then possibly Roger Federer or Stan Wawrinka in the final. But whether or not Cilic pulls off a repeat, his return to the semifinals ensures he’ll leave Flushing more respected than ever.