“Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There’s nothing you can’t do
Now you’re in New York …”
The scoreboard reads 6–3, 6–3, 5–2. During the changeover, I’m focused on what I need to do when “Empire State of Mind” blasts over the speakers in Arthur Ashe Stadium, giving me a spurt of inspiration and making my long and obstacle-ridden path to this moment, in the finals of the 2014 U.S. Open, at the top of tennis, that much more special. It goes without saying that any time I hear that song, my brain immediately replays that last diagonal backhand followed by the cheers of the stadium crowd.
First, let’s rewind to the year before, a year that has left a lasting effect on me and was, to put it lightly, extremely difficult. Maybe you’ve noticed that I don’t like to talk about 2013, partly because I don’t want my name being associated with the word doping and partly because, if I started talking, I’m afraid I would say too much. I would never wish for any innocent person to have to battle with the antidoping organization. Although it was created to make the sporting world better, cleaner and fairer, my experience was anything but. Even if you are deemed innocent, as was the case for me, don’t expect to receive any type of apology for the horror you experienced throughout the process.
During those stressful four months, I was lucky to have the support of those closest to me—my wife, family, friends, most of my tennis colleagues and my team. This was a period when some people close to me turned their backs when I needed them most, a time when those in the sphere of Croatian sport, the ones who are first to congratulate you and take photos with you after a big success, disappeared when I was deceived in the process led by the antidoping organization. Throughout that process, while it was difficult and stressful time of uncertainty, I learned life lessons that made me mature as a player and as a person.
This experience gave me more strength, desire and motivation to train harder. It wasn’t to stick it to those who I knew would be first in line when I succeeded once again, but for myself and those who believed in me from the beginning. Most of all, that period opened my eyes and helped me realize how much I truly love this sport and how committed I am to giving my all toward my goal of becoming the best tennis player I can be.
My time away from the Tour meant a lot of free time, which I spent training with my long-time conditioning coach, Slaven Hrvoj, and with Goran Ivanisevic, who I began working with in the summer of 2013. Most people associate Goran with his laidback attitude and on-court shenanigans, but few are aware of his incredible work ethic; he was physically one of the most capable players on Tour during his career. He never went easy on himself, or anyone else for that matter. His intense work ethic suited me well, as I love training and was especially motivated given the circumstances. One of the first things Goran and I worked on was my serve, which had oscillated throughout my career and up to that point hadn’t been a true weapon in my game. A change to my service technique, which can often take months to master, felt natural after 10 minutes. This all resulted in me feeling well prepared heading into the new season.
At the start of the 2014 season, I won the Zagreb Indoors title for the fourth time, giving me the confidence I needed going into the season. After Zagreb came wins against Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Rotterdam, followed by a title run at Delray Beach. That year I had three difficult matches against Novak Djokovic—at Indian Wells, Roland Garros and Wimbledon—and in each I felt I had shown fortitude and great form. In Toronto, two and a half weeks before the U.S. Open, I had another tough match against Federer that I eventually lost 7–6, 6–7, 6–4, but this match would later prove to be great preparation for the U.S. Open.
As always, my team and I arrived in New York a week before the start of the tournament. My first practice was in the evening hours at Arthur Ashe Stadium. I was feeling incredible during the practice session and I turned to Goran, Slaven and Robi Prusac, my long-time physio, and said, “On a court like this, it is impossible to not play well.” The team had a good laugh and poked fun at my excitement. Goran, in the way only Goran can, replied, “All right, hotshot, we’ll see what you can do once the tournament starts.” I think I showed them what I meant during those two weeks at Flushing Meadows.
If the only factor to winning was how one prepared for competition, then I think Croatia would have many more Grand Slam champions. But there is something to be said for luck and fate in all of this. Speaking of luck and fate, I can’t help but remember my encounter at a CVS in New York leading up to that fateful two weeks in Flushing Meadows. My manager and I stopped by to get some visa photos taken for the Asia Swing. We got to talking with the kind cashier at the register, and she shared that she was originally from Armenia and that she took care of her family that was still over there. She talked about how much she enjoyed helping others and that she loved her job because she often gets to help customers coming into the store. You know those seemingly mundane moments when you happen across someone who mesmerizes you with their positive energy, humility and honesty, so much so that they immediately make your day and leave a lasting impression? That is what talking to this woman was like. I handed her a $20 bill to pay my tab; when she realized my change owed was $5.55, she exclaimed that this was a sign that something great was in store for me. Her sincerity was so refreshing that I smiled and told her to keep the change. As we left, I joked with my manager that when I win the U.S. Open, I’ll come back with a gift for our new friend. My show of appreciation to her was delivered the day after my U.S. Open victory.
If you haven’t been to New York around the time the U.S. Open is held, it is hard to explain that kind of heat, humidity and heaviness in the air. The fact that the city is literally all concrete only adds to the heat factor. That 2014 U.S. Open was no exception. The first few victories came relatively easy. Marcos Baghdatis, Illya Marchenko, Kevin Anderson. I played Anderson on the Grandstand, my favorite court, where I had never lost a match. Week 2 started with a matchup against Gilles Simon, one of those players whose style of play does not suit me. We had played five matches up to that point; I had lost all five and each match had come down to a deciding set. This sixth match would be no exception, as far as that deciding match factor. After four hours on court under the grueling summer heat, I finally got to celebrate my maiden victory against Simon.
It is well known that Goran was particular when it came to his routines while on tour. Coach Goran is no different from player Goran in that regard. Coffee at the same place every morning. The car is ordered at exactly the same time before on court warm-ups. Everyone has their assigned seat in the car. Warm-ups always take place on the same court. As the tournament moves ahead, the specific routine intensifies, and of course the whole team becomes aware and addicted to keeping with this routine. Usually on a day off from matches, we head to Flushing Meadows for an hour of practice followed by 45–60 minutes of conditioning. Of course, this is always done at the same time, on the same court. Just to be sure. However, after my match against Simon, the team said I deserved a day of rest and man, did I need it. I don’t remember much about my match against Tomás Berdych, except that I had never beaten him with such ease. I remember telling my then girlfriend, now wife, before the match that she should come to New York once I beat Berdych. I say this with love—my wife leans on the pessimistic side. She gave me a sarcastic response, but promised she would come if I won. I called her immediately after the match to see when I could expect her arrival. She wasn’t so sure I would beat my next opponent (Federer) and was stressing about leaving work and traveling all that way for one match, but a promise is a promise.
At the time, Kike and my godmother were to land at JFK as I was supposed to be warming up for the semifinal match. Goran’s back was giving him issues, which wouldn’t have been such a problem if he hadn’t also been the person who had warmed up with me before every match. I suggested we find someone else, to which Goran replied, “I don’t care if I have to do it standing on one leg, I am warming up with you. We can’t change the routine.”
I was surprisingly relaxed, as if I was headed to practice and not a semifinal match against the great Roger Federer. It is truly something to hear all his accomplishments listed over the speakers during the walk out of the tunnel. It literally takes a solid two minutes for the announcer to list everything and that list is followed by an eruption of applause from the crowd. I don’t care how cool you are; it is impressive to hear all those accomplishments being credited to one player.
For me, that was the best match of my career. Almost flawless in my game. It was a huge win for me to finally beat Roger, against whom I had a 0–5 record, playing in front of a crowd of 20,000 people cheering for your opponent. As we met at the net after the final point, Roger congratulated me and told me how happy he was for me.
Playing your first Grand Slam final is one of the most special experiences. Throughout Croatia, and especially in my hometown of Medjugorje, the final match was watched with great interest. A large projector screen was set up outside my childhood home, and the atmosphere was like that of a World Cup match. Even though we were thousands of kilometers apart, believe me when I say I felt the support and positive energy as if I were playing in front of my family and friends on the court back home.
I felt fresh heading into that final. I won the previous two matches without dropping a set and I was focused on staying poised. I’ve heard many stories of athletes who are unable to sleep the night before a big match because of the excitement. I’ve honestly never been the type and the night before that final, I slept like a baby.
At the beginning of each tournament there are tons of people on site; you have 400-plus tennis players, their teams, managers, the spectators, tournament staff. But the number dwindles as people are eliminated and by that last day, there was hardly anyone left. The hallways and locker room are deserted. All the courts are empty. It is as if the events of the past two weeks took place ages ago. It felt like the only people left were me, Kei Nishikori and our respective teams.
Heading into the match, Goran gave me some technical advice and told me to enjoy myself because I had earned the opportunity. Honestly, that was everything I needed to hear before the match. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous at the start, but once I broke for 4-2 in the first set, there was nothing stopping me. The most challenging game of the match was definitely 4-2 in the third set. Kei was giving everything he had to stay in the match and the crowd was eager for some action, but after I won that game, I let out a loud shout because I just knew that was it—I had it!
The side I was to serve from had a light breeze and only Roger had broken my serve once from that side and up until that game, I had firmly held my serve. Against Kei I had landed consecutive aces from that side, so I just knew the trophy was mine.
In that moment I experienced what every tennis player dreams of—lifting a Grand Slam trophy. No matter how many times you’ve dreamt of that moment, imagined how you would celebrate, it is impossible under those circumstances, with emotions running wild, to follow any sort of pre-conceived plan once the umpire calls “Game, Set, Match.” In that moment I was overcome with so many different emotions, I simply fell onto the court.
A moment that will forever be ingrained in my mind is seeing MARIN CILIC 2014 U.S. OPEN CHAMPION flash across the scoreboard. I ran up to my box to celebrate with my team. This may be an individual sport, but any success on the tennis court is impossible without support from a team of people, and that is why I want to take this opportunity to tell them once again THANK YOU. In the moments following match point, I was immediately reminded of that difficult period in an athlete’s career when they question whether they should continue on this path or simply give up. It wasn’t long before this victory that I had found myself at a similar crossroads, this title served as proof that I had chosen the right path.
It was incredible to celebrate this achievement with all those who had believed in me and stuck by me throughout the years. As everything was being prepared for the trophy ceremony, I called my parents who have been following my every point since I first stepped onto a tennis court and who have provided unconditional support throughout my career. My father’s support displayed in a very vocal way, my mother in a more reserved manner, but always present. They were there for every win, every loss, all those thousands of kilometers traveled, challenges that arose. Because of all those sleepless nights and uncertain moments, I was so happy to be able to give them this moment.
I write this sitting in my childhood home, surrounded by junior tournament trophies and newspaper clippings from years ago where I express my dreams of playing on the tour, making it to Wimbledon at least once. I write this article from my childhood home as a U.S. Open champion, Davis Cup champion and winner of 18 ATP titles. This makes me proud and extremely grateful. I hope this story will inspire young people who read it to dream big and be persistent in those dreams. The place where dreams are made and everything is possible isn’t New York, as Alicia Keys sings, but it is in each of us. You just have to dig a little to find it.