A Stepping Stone for Marin Cilic?

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A Stepping Stone for Marin Cilic?
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

They don’t call it an “upset” for no reason.

That Marin Cilic, and not Andy Murray will be progressing to the quarterfinals of the US Open has surely upset a lot of people, be they British tennis fanatics, fans of Murray’s cerebral game, or those who relished seeing his brain tested against Juan Martin del Potro’s brawn.

But the flip side to all those disappointments is a breakthrough result for the 20-year-old Croat Cilic. Forget his three fourth-tier titles, or his two wins against the US Davis Cup squad in July: This win for the 6’6” young gun towers over all his previous accomplishments.

Little in his three previous wins in this event suggested such a result was possible: not Cilic’s straight-set wins over Denis Istomin or Ryan Sweeting, and certainly not his five-setter over American Jesse Levine.

And the fact that Murray only mustered nine games certainly shifts the emphasis to Murray’s below-par play.

However, Cilic deserves credit for seeing this opportunity and exploiting it. Murray’s returns were poor, and Cilic hit 10 aces; the Scot played too defensively, and the Croat stayed on attack with his flat forehand.

Furthermore, when Murray had set points at 5-4, Cilic, who turns 21 on the 28th of this month, didn’t betray his inexperience. Three games later, he had taken the first set and was scarcely threatened again.

Of all stats, the one that may say the most is this: Cilic had nine break point chances and capitalized on five, while Murray had seven and took none.

Cilic’s next match could double as a slam-dunk contest, in that he faces a man of near-identical height in del Potro. Let’s not confuse height with stature, though, as del Potro clearly has the thicker résumé despite being only five days older.

The Argentine is the No. 6 seed at this event, has been one of the handful of names tossed about as a potential winner here, and has looked imposing from the start. Aside from his single set hiccup against Daniel Koellerer in round three, del Potro has dominated his opponents. On Tuesday he throttled ex-world No. 1 and former Roland Garros champion Juan Carlos Ferrero 3, 3, and 3, hitting 22 aces to only one double fault.

Cilic, however, with his heavy back-arch serve and groundstroke weapons, can potentially threaten del Potro in ways the aging Spaniard could not. To do this, he must view Tuesday not as an accomplishment, but as a stepping stone.

He must be wary of a letdown, as this match presents a chance to do even more damage to the draw, or at least to give the Argentine a severe test. Doing so will show the rest of the tour that Tuesday’s result was not a one-off, and Cilic can earn even greater respect from the tour.

If he brings less than his best and falls meekly, he’ll only be remembered as the guy who opened the draw for del Potro, or possibly Rafael Nadal.

In that case Murray won’t be the only one leaving New York upset.

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