Croatia’s Marin Cilic will continue his attempt to reach a second consecutive Grand Slam final when he takes on America’s Steve Johnson in the French Open third round. Cilic’s form since reaching that final in Melbourne has been indifferent and he could certainly use a deep run in Paris to get his season back moving in the right direction. But he will not find Johnson an easy opponent, with the American having played some excellent tennis on the clay this season. Who will come out on top?
Cilic and Johnson have faced off four times previously, and it is not a match up that Johnson has enjoyed, losing all four contests and winning just one set along the way. Their first meeting came in 2015 at the ATP 500 in Tokyo with Cilic winning 6-3 6-3 in the second round. He then defeated Johnson in 2016 at Queen’s Club, recovering from dropping the first set to win 6-7 6-3 6-4. He also beat Johnson twice in straight sets last year, at Wimbledon 6-4 7-6 6-4 and in Shanghai 7-6 6-4.
Path to the third round
Cilic, seeded third in Paris, began his French Open campaign against Australia’s James Duckworth who was playing on a protected ranking. The Australian battled hard against Cilic, but ultimately the world #4 simply had too much quality, winning through 6-3 7-5 7-6 to reach the second round. There he was worked hard by Polish qualifier Hubert Hurkacz. But again Cilic was able to play the better tennis when it mattered most and he won in four sets 6-2 6-2 5-7 7-5.
Johnson, who earlier this season won the third title of his career in Houston, started his tournament with an upset win against 25th seed Adrian Mannarino, who has never been particularly well-suited to the clay. He proved unable to cope with Johnson’s power and the California-native won in straight sets 7-6 6-2 6-2. He then recovered from dropping the first set to defeat Germany’s Jan Lennard Struff in four, 4-6 7-6 6-2 6-2 to reach the third round in Paris for the third time.
How do they match up?
Cilic, despite his considerable 6’5” frame, is not an enormously powerful player, which is the reason so much of his success has come on fast hard courts, where he can use the pace of the court to his own advantage. However, when he needs to, he can put extra-weight behind his groundstrokes, particularly his forehand. His serve is also a dangerous weapon, and the Croatian has already hit 22 aces so far this tournament, winning over three quarters of the points behind his first serve in both matches so far.
The centrepiece of Johnson’s game is an excellent forehand. The American, who was the most decorated NCAA player ever during his college career, strikes his forehand with an impressive combination of pace and spin. However, as strong as his forehand is, his backhand is a real weakness. The American rarely hits over the ball from that wing, and though his slice is good, the lack of variety in his game has held him back throughout his career.
Johnson has impressed so far this year at Roland Garros. But his run will come to an end at the hands of Marin Cilic. The Croatian has too much versatility and power for Johnson to match, particularly when he is unable to hurt Cilic with his backhand. Whilst this will be far from a walkover for Cilic, he will surely rightly back himself to exploit the weaknesses in Johnson’s game and advance to the fourth round. Cilic in four.