US Open 2015 Men's Semifinals: Djokovic vs. Cilic Preview and Prediction

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistSeptember 9, 2015

US Open 2015 Men's Semifinals: Djokovic vs. Cilic Preview and Prediction

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    Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic clash in the 2015 U.S. Open semifinals for the rights to win the "Battle of the Balkans" and, most importantly, to land in another major final.

    They are supremely talented champions. Djokovic is the dominant No. 1 player in the world, and Cilic is the defending U.S. Open champion, looking to beat Djokovic on his way to a second career title in Flushing Meadow. Although their career accomplishments are heavily weighted in favor of Serbian Djokovic, Croatian Cilic stands a solid chance to knock off his regional rival.

    Let's examine the tale of the tape and find out why Djokovic will need to lift his game.

    Cilic has proven his mettle in New York and must once again be treated as a legitimate contender for the New World's biggest tournament.

Who Has the Historical Edge?

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    On the surface, the head-to-head career numbers look ugly if you back Cilic. Djokovic has an untainted 13-0 record against Cilic, bolstered by wins on every surface and just about everywhere important, except Australia.

    But there have been some strong contests since 2014 when Cilic returned to tennis following a nine-month suspension for doping. He battled Djokovic to three tough sets in Indian Wells, four gritty sets at Roland Garros and five grueling sets at Wimbledon. It was Cilic who won the 2014 U.S. Open.

    Following early-year injuries and a couple of clunkers against Djokovic, Cilic again battled Djokovic in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, with little separating the two, despite his straight-sets defeat with each set scoring 6-4.

    Meanwhile, Djokovic has worn a target that every star on tour is trying to mark. From his angle, he does not have a rivalry with Cilic, though it's clear he respects the big bearded man from his home peninsula.

    Djokovic is the clear favorite, but Cilic is due. Could he pull off the upset?

Cilic at 2015 US Open

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    It has not been an easy title defense, and by the end of the first week, it looked as if Cilic would be picking up plane tickets for an early flight out of New York.

    He played two tiebreakers in a shaky first-round win, and he had to expend a lot of energy in Round 3 to overcome Mikhail Kukushkin in the fifth set. This was hardly the road to his title defense.

    After taking down Jeremy Chardy (who has played well this summer) in the fourth round, Cilic delivered another gutsy win over powerful Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who looked like the fresher and better player before the match. For all of his adversity, Cilic has learned to dig deep in important matches as he approaches his 27th birthday, it's possible to see him add on to his ascension in a manner similar to Stan Wawrinka.

    He's got plenty of strength in his 6'6" frame, a huge serve when he is at his best, very solid baseline footwork and powerful groundstrokes. There are a lot of similarities to the way Juan Martin del Potro played when he could stay healthy, so he has the game to trouble anyone in the world.

    Now Cilic gets the chance to prove himself against the ultimate measuring stick. He must slay Djokovic if he wishes to set up one match for his second major.

Djokovic at 2015 US Open

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    If this were just about any other player, we would be singing his praises. If Kei Nishikori, Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray had landed in the semifinals, winning 15 of 17 sets, there would be all kinds of championship evaluations for those stars.

    But right now Djokovic can really only be measured in how he is playing in big matches against Roger Federer and especially in how he compares to his earlier 2015 self when he blitzed the tour through Wimbledon 2015.

    That’s the part that’s made this an interesting analysis.

    For all of his current dominance, Djokovic sometimes looks like he’s going through the motions when he fends off feisty players such as Roberto Bautista Agut and Feliciano Lopez. It’s more than Spanish steel that has dared to play with plucky fervor. The champion looks more vulnerable on faster hard-court surfaces in North America, as his losses in Canada and Cincinnati illustrate.

    Djokovic is clearly playing with more safe margin on his shots, landing them often around the service box, well inside the sidelines and daring his opponents to step into the baseline and pound their forehand (see Bautista Agut) or slash with slice and volley (see Lopez).

    In a way, Djokovic is morphing somewhat into what former rival Nadal often did in the past: Let the opponent prove he can overachieve for three super sets. If he has to dial it up, then do it.

    But here is Djokovic in the semifinals, two victories away from winning three of the four majors and another epic year to sit next to his 2011 achievements.

The Biggest X-Factors

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    The Crowd

    If you’ve noticed the crowds at Djokovic’s recent matches, they have clearly supported Bautista Agut and Lopez when they made their rugged one-set comebacks.

    It’s more than just wanting more tennis; New York fans, like most fans all over the world, would love to see legendary Federer get his 18th major title as his career allegedly dawns. (sidenote: Maybe the rest of the ATP would breathe a sigh of relief at Federer’s retirement, but the Swiss is a lethal No. 2 and looks as if he could play in the top 10 into his 40s.)

    So rooting against Djokovic somewhat gives more support for Federer. At least they are warming up if this expected final does occur.

    I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating that Djokovic is often esteemed as the modern-day Ivan Lendl. Both men could overwhelm anyone from the baseline, and if Lendl had the more aggressive forehand, Djokovic is today’s premier returner with nearly perfect mechanics when he is in the zone. He dismantles his opponents slowly, and there are some who find this boring.

    It’s not likely the crowd can bother Djokovic at all. He is used to all this and does his part in being friendly to them and thanking them in his post-match comments. But it could galvanize underdog Cilic to play with the energy and belief that just might be peaking once again.

    Risk Factor

    Who will take the bigger risks? In some ways the players mirror each other, although Cilic’s raw power is bigger and Djokovic’s return game is superior. We’ve seen Djokovic go into cruise control, let his foot off the gas before he rips off his shirt to towel off and stare with frightening anger before calmly resuming his B-plus or A-minus game.

    The onus is on Cilic to try more and execute bigger as Wawrinka did at the French Open, but Djokovic seems likely to feel things out and then adjust if he needs to step up his game. He knows he always has another gear, but it’s no given he can pull out a tight match in a fifth set against a big server who is on his game.

Cilic Will Win US Open Semifinal If...

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    The conventional wisdom is that the underdog needs to win the first set more than the favorite, but we've also seen a lot of comebacks and tide-turning matches. Modern stars are more tempered with coming back from adversity, and Cilic is reading the manual and acting it out.

    Cilic can certainly dictate with his powerful serve and forehand if Djokovic is too passive. He must get into a groove with his groundstrokes and tee off from mostly stationary positions. If Djokovic is unwilling to move him from corner to corner or paint the sidelines, Cilic has the potential to hit through Djokovic and cause him to ratchet up another scrappy retaliation. At some point, the Serbian might come up empty.

    Furthermore, Cilic is a legitimate U.S. Open champion. He has the confidence of destroying three great opponents (Tomas Berdych, Federer, Nishikori) in successive straight-sets victories to emphatically close out his title last year. He might need a similar effort this year, because he has spent a lot of energy in playing 14 of 15 possible sets in the last three matches. How much does he have left?

    Furthermore, Cilic knows that the world No. 1 is not rolling with an aura of invincibility. Djokovic flopped in the 2014 semifinals against Nishikori, and if the pressure of having to get another must-win major gnaws at him, Cilic could step in and take this semifinal.

Djokovic Will Win US Open Semifinal If...

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    Djokovic can still win playing his B-game, but it could also cost him the semifinal or damage his performance in the final. There are several "little" things the world No. 1 needs to do to dominate this match and get a boost for the final.

    Serve better. At times, he's been rolling in some pretty weak second serves. The Flushing Meadows courts should be able to help him here, but thus far he's dropped a level from a couple of months ago.

    Lock in on the returns. There's a good chance he does that because he knows Cilic is more imposing than Bautista Agut. There will inevitably be those important breakpoints that could tip an early set or two for either player. If Djokovic takes advantage, he could play a much-shorter match.

    Finish more easy points at net and crush the short balls. Sometimes he was great, and other times his volleys caught too much air and floated lazily within reach of Lopez in his previous match. No need to lose the edge of a hard-fought point.

    Go after the corners to make Cilic run. Take some more shots up the line when Cilic is off balance. There's room to wear down his opponent with body blows.

    Above all, he can be the Djokovic who ripped up Indian Wells and Miami. Maybe he can transfer some of the sunnier southern U.S. states into his mentality in the Big Apple. Djokovic's A-game is too much for anyone, but of course the opponent must always be respected in what he can do to change this.


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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    I picked Djokovic to win the tournament, but I’ve been a little surprised that he has not been more locked into his best tennis the past two matches. We’ve seen that picture before, such the Australian Open survival semifinal match that caused many writers and fans to run over to the Andy Murray bandwagon. Then Djokovic pulled away in the final, and the rest was history.

    Cilic could win, and this is a legitimate blockbuster match, but how do we pick against the champion when he sports a 13-0 record against Cilic, including some recent big wins in their matches. Add in Djokovic’s motivation to win this title, coupled with the fact that he knows he needs to improve, and he should be very attentive to coach Boris Becker.

    I don’t expect it to be easy either. Four sets has been his latest pattern, so maybe this time he zeroes in on the second-set letdowns. Furthermore, he might need to win an early clutch tiebreaker to pull away from Cilic.

    The second weekend of a major is coming, and although the U.S. Open has been a slippery slope, Djokovic will defeat Cilic by playing hard, taking a few more risks and finding more precision.

    Four sets ought to do it.