In a clash between a five-time finalist and the 2016 champion, Novak Djokovic takes on Marin Cilic in the last four in Ohio. Djokovic has lifted eight of the nine Masters 1000 titles, the only one that still eludes him is the Cincinnati crown and he will surely be eager to claim it to complete the unprecedented Career Golden Masters. But Cilic, who defeated Andy Murray to win the title in 2016, will provide stern opposition indeed. Who will come out on top?
Djokovic and Cilic have met 16 times and Cilic has won the last two meetings, including in the final at Queen’s earlier this year where he saved a match point en route to a 5-7 7-6 6-3 win. Unfortunately, the good news for him ends there because it was Djokovic who won the previous 14 matches. The run began with a 6-4 6-3 win in Dubai in the first round in 2008 and concluded with a 6-0 6-1 6-2 demolition in the US Open semifinals in 2015, ending Cilic’s defence of his US Open title.
Path to the semifinals
Djokovic, outside the top eight seeds in Ohio for the first time since 2006, began his tournament in the first round against Steve Johnson. He was forced to work for his win, and squandered his first eight match points, but eventually prevailed 6-4 7-6. He then overcame a slow start to oust Adrian Mannarino 4-6 6-2 6-1. A rain delay then aided his cause against defending champion Grigor Dimitrov who he bested 2-6 6-3 6-4 before he scored his ninth win over Milos Raonic,, 7-5 4-6 6-3.
Cilic, seeded seventh, opened his Cincinnati campaign against Marius Copil after a first-round bye. The Romanian had never beaten a top ten player but made a good start, claiming the first set in a tiebreak. But Cilic mounted a commendable comeback to advance a 6-7 6-4 6-4 winner. He then battled past Karen Khachanov 7-6 3-6 6-4 in one of many matches delayed by rain before returning to beat Pablo Carreno Busta 7-6 6-4 to reach his second Cincinnati semifinal.
How do they match up?
Djokovic will have to strain every sinew to withstand the fearsome offence of Cilic, whilst the Croatian will need to do the same to knock down the walls of Djokovic’s formidable defence. Elastic is a word often invoked to describe Djokovic, principally when describing his flexibility on the court. But there is also something elastic about his ability to stand up to immense pressure and then hurl it back at his opponents with interest and without having given up any ground himself.
But Cilic has the quality to force him to cede control of the baseline. The Croatian excels at using the pace of the court along with controlled power to hit through opponents. Just last week in Toronto, he hit Nadal off the court in the first set of a quarterfinal clash he may well feel he should have won. But he can over-press and that was what cost him against the Spaniard. And whilst Cilic is an excellent server, he will need to have an excellent day at the line against Djokovic.
This is certainly the biggest test either man has yet faced this week. Djokovic began slowly in Cincinnati, but Raonic forced him to play something approaching his best tennis and when the chips were down, he was able to deliver physically and mentally. Cilic, who is not unlike Raonic in both style and approach, will present a similar challenge. But Djokovic has enjoyed playing Cilic throughout most of their rivalry and will go some way to reasserting his hoodoo with a three-set win.