Marin Cilic recounts memories of Croatia’s 2005 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas title win in such detail that it’s easy to forget that he didn’t actually play any part in his nation’s famous triumph.
He was, in fact, just an aspiring 17-year-old, still over two months away from making his debut in the international team competition. Not that that seems to matter in his recollections of that victory nine years ago, when Croatia became the first unseeded nation to win the title.
“I remember most of the year,” says Cilic. “[Ivan] Ljubicic had an amazing year for our country. He won all 11 of his matches, except the last one which he lost in five sets. That was a pity to miss out on a clean record. Twelve wins for your country in Davis Cup… nobody ever did that.
“But it was huge to win it,” he continues. “Mario [Ancic] was there in the team, winning the last point. For Croatia, as a small country, it was a huge achievement.”
Just listening to the 25-year-old talk about Davis Cup is enough to send a tingle down your spine. Competing for Croatia in this event, it’s clear, means an awful lot to him.
“It’s the team spirit,” Cilic says, by way of explanation. “You are there all week with your teammates, the medical team, everybody who is there around you. You have your whole country behind your back.
“It’s a bigger responsibility, definitely, and sometimes a bit more pressure than usual, but overall it’s a really nice experience for your career. You are representing your country, trying to play as a team, as a group, trying to win some ties, win the title. That, I think, is one of the nicest feelings in tennis.”
The title might yet be some way off for Croatia. Last year, Great Britain brought an end to their five-year stay in the top tier of the competition and the next test for Zelko Krajan’s team is to bounce back into the World Group by defeating Netherlands in their upcoming World Group play-off in Amsterdam on 12-14 September.
The tie, on away soil at Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome, is one that Cilic is already looking forward to.
“It’s definitely going to be really interesting, playing again in the Davis Cup against the Netherlands,” he says. “We’re going to have a very young team. With [Borna] Coric probably in the team and a couple of doubles guys. It’s going to be interesting for us definitely.”
While Cilic will have to lead his team in the face of a vocal Dutch crowd, the Croat is hoping his familiarity with the opposition, led by Robin Haase and Igor Sijsling, will make the difference in the tie. In a combined seven appearances against the two players, he has defeated Sijsling four times and Haase three.
“I’ve known the guys that are playing for their team for many, many years. We’re almost the same generation,” says Cilic. “It’s definitely going to be really nice to play against them. We heard that in the Netherlands there’s going to be a big crowd, very loud, so that’s going to be another nice experience.”
One thing for sure, defeat is not an option for Cilic against Netherlands as he clings on to dreams of emulating the run of Ljubicic and co. to the 2005 title.
“It would be really important for us players to get closer to winning the [Davis Cup] title,” he says. “That’s definitely, from all the players that are competing, a goal.
“For us, to play in the World Group with the best teams, best nations, is always a big privilege and a big challenge. I’ve been enjoying playing for my country for already many, many years and those weeks are always pretty special.”