Most players are in or nearing peak form by the time the US Open rolls around, if they’re not coping with some nagging, late-season injury. But in many ways Marin Cilic is still finding his way, having missed three months at the beginning of the year with a serious shoulder ailment. He didn’t take the court until Indian Wells in March, and he has been seeking the aggressive brand of slash-and-burn tennis that carried him to the 2014 US Open title ever since.
“I didn't need to change my service motion, even though some doctors were encouraging that,” said Cilic, the No. 9 seed. “I might have problems in the future if I continue to do the same. But luckily everything is really well and I am totally pain-free.”
On Friday in Louis Armstrong Stadium, you could almost feel the defending champion’s desperate quest for consistency as he battled upset-minded Kazakh Mikhail Kukushkin over more than four hours in the soaring dog-days-of-summer heat, earning a hard-fought 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-1 victory that should help him gauge exactly how far he’s come, and how far he still has left to go. The win sent him to the round of 16 for the second straight year.
The stubborn Kukushkin, who a round earlier had shocked Bulgarian baseliner Grigor Dimitrov in another five-setter, was often the superior player off the ground, totaling a match-best 62 winners in the marathon meeting. But Cilic would score an all-important break in the second game of the fifth and final set to distance himself for good. The Croat would register 27 aces in all, and won 84 percent of his first-serve points.