They were born within a week of each other. They grew up on the junior circuit together. They turned professional in the same year. They are both 6 ft 6, both right-handed and they have both won a US Open Grand Slam. They are tennis twins. On Sunday afternoon, Marin Cilic and Juan Martin Del Potro met in the first reverse singles in a match that would effectively decide the outcome of the 2016 Davis Cup.
Argentina had taken a gamble and chosen to play Del Potro in Saturday’s doubles. The gamble had not paid off, and for the first two sets in the singles it looked like it had actually backfired as Delpo appeared to be wilting under the onslaught of Cilic’s powerful groundstrokes. Marin has rarely played better. Inspired by his noisy home crowd, he was serving like a demon and hitting groundstrokes with power, accuracy and angles that was breathtaking. But, sadly, Marin has an Achilles heel: an evil twin imposter (he has a lot of twins!) that takes over just when the pressure is on and a match gets into ‘squeaky bum time’ – to use a famous Fergie parlance. All of a sudden, Marin goes from serving like a god to forgetting how to hit a first serve. The serve goes and inexplicably silly mistakes creep into his game at just the wrong times. In tennis, it is never about how many points you win, but about when you win them.
At first though, fortified by the noisy atmosphere, Cilic seemed to have survived his self-created crisis moments. He gave back an early break of serve in the opening set but regained his composure enough to take the set on a tie-break. It was Del Potro who was rattled, and Cilic ramped up the pressure to break in the second set. Delpo’s struggles on his serve were not helped by the umpire giving him an unncessary time violation later on, which caused him to double fault and lose his serve again. The second set was gone and Croatia were just one set away from winning the Davis Cup.
But in a five set match, being one set away from winning is like being a planet away from getting to the moon. It can be quite straightforward to win two sets in a row in tennis; it is notoriously difficult to win three sets in a row, which is why five set matches are the ultimate test in tennis. In the end, it was a moment of cheeky genius that turned the destiny of the match. At 15-15 all in the third set on Del Potro’s serve, with Cilic toying with him, drawing him into the net and then lobbing him, Del Potro scrambled back to the baseline and with his back to the net, hit a tweener-lob between his legs that sailed diagonally over the Cilic’s head and landed plum in the left corner between the tram and baseline. A shot worthy of winning the Davis Cup.
Delpo, sensing a change in momentum, soon had Cilic in trouble with two break points. But, unusually, Marin held his nerve and the set stayed on serve until 5-6. Croatia were within touching distance if Marin could take it to a tie-break. The Argentinian fans, who had been making themselves hoarse with their incessant noise and unrelenting support, sensed they were on last chance saloon and cranked up the atmosphere one more notch. It was ‘squeaky bum time’ all round. Marin had done surprisingly well in saving numerous break points in the match, but he always appeared just a wobble away from yielding. Delpo at times looked like he was on the wrong end of a heavyweight boxing bout, yet somehow found reserves of strength to hang in there with some outstanding defending. In a battle of wills and sheer bloody-mindedness, there was only going to be one winner. Marin’s slacker twin was back with a vengeance and he had lost the set 5-7.
Yet, to his credit, Marin’s head did not go down. He stayed strong in the fourth set, and it looked like he might outlast Delpo, who was now showing visible signs of fatigue. He was slowing down noticeably and Cilic had got him to deuce at 4-4 in the fourth set. Delpo won the next point to get advantage. And then, there was another one of those pivotal incidents that change the course of a match. The umpire once again chose an inopportune moment to give Del Potro a time violation. As it was his second, he lost his first serve. Del Potro was furious. Cilic was confused. And the crowd started going bananas. A lengthy delay ensued during which the referee was called and argued with by everybody. Once all the steam was let off, the play resumed, but with a different Del Potro. A raging Del Potro. The perceived injustice of the time warning, rather than having a detrimental impact, acted only to reignite his fire, intensify his determination and harden his resolve. There was only going to be one outcome of the second serve. Bang. A winner. Once more, Marin was serving to stay in the set. Once more, come pressure time, he was found wanting. A fired up Del Potro was not to be denied and the match would go down to the fifth and deciding set.
The match was already a thriller with more twists, turns and red herrings than an Agatha Christie crime novel. But there was more to come. Against the run of play, Del Potro was broken in the very first game of the fifth set. The break, though, merely increased Del Potro’s determination, whereas Cilic again failed to raise his level in response and hold on to his serve. Still, he reacted well to the setback and had Del Potro at deuce in the following game, when yet another controversial incident occurred. A Del Potro forehand appeared to have gone long and a shout made Cilic stop playing momentarily thinking it was the line judge calling it out. But it was a shout from the crowd and Cilic was forced to play a hasty shot in reply and the point was lost. He flung his racquet to the ground in anger and his feelings were exacerbated when Del Potro won the next point to hold. Though Marin held his next two service games, there was an air of inevitability about the outcome.
Twice this season Marin has lost after being two sets up. Against Federer in the quarter finals at Wimbledon, he also squandered three match points in the third set before losing in five. He subsequently lost in the first Davis Cup quarter final rubber against Jack Sock of the USA after being two sets up. Fortunately, he had youngster Borna Coric to save him by winning the deciding fifth rubber to take Croatia through. But there would be no Borna Coric in the fifth rubber here to save his blushes this time. Croatia were going to win or lose with Marin Cilic. Marin had nearly lost from two sets up in the first rubber against Federico Delbonis before he regrouped himself. He has always been vulnerable under pressure, and in sport, vulnerability under pressure is fatal.
Predictably, Marin’s biggest weapon, his serve, crumbled once more when it was needed most. Delpo, tennis’s greatest comeback kid, had done it once again, coming back from two sets down and a break down in the fifth to win a quite extraordinary match 6-7, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. The quality of the match and the standard of shot making was so high, and the atmosphere so intense, it deserves to go down as one of the greatest Davis Cup matches, and probably the match of the season. It had been so, so close; ultimately, the difference between the tennis twins was that Delpo was able to raise his game under pressure, while Marin’s game capitulated. It was not the better man who had won, but the stronger man. The one with the stiffer sinew and the bigger heart.
Even though there was a fifth and final rubber to come, without Borna Coric Croatia had no more aces to play. Ivo Karlovic, though ranked 20th the world to his opponent Federico Delbonis’s 41, was a servebot with practically no tennis ability. The outcome was never in doubt. Delbonis destroyed him, and Argentina had finally won the Davis Cup at their fifth attempt. Delpo and Delbo were their heroes, backed up by a crazy, raucous, fervid band of supporters that deserved as much accolade as their players. After all the heartache of years lost and career wrecked through endless injuries, numerous surgeries and several failed comebacks, no one deserved to fight his way to victory more than Delpo. It was a triumph for persistence, perseverance and sheer blind faith.
As for yours truly, it was a bittersweet moment. I was happy for Delpo, sad for Marin. I wanted Marin to win as he is one rung above Delpo on my favourites’ list. I knew he was good enough to win – he played so well he surprised even me by the quality of his tennis. I knew he was good, but even I didn’t realise he could be this good. But his inability to deal with pressure has always been his constant, and in sport, it is a player’s ability to handle pressure that determines who wins. Delpo, like all natural-born winners, is at his best when things are at their worst. Pressure brings out the best in him; it ignites his competitive spirit and strengthens his resolve.
Of course even great competitors can be beaten, but they will never beat themselves. Those with more fragile mentalities like Marin will always have to struggle with their own demons in order to succeed. However, true winners are not those who have no weaknesses, but those who manage to overcome their weaknesses. As Delpo so amply demonstrated, fortune can be persuaded to smile on the comeback kid.