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Tuesday, January 26, 2010
No doubt Cilic can compete with the big boys

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Marin Cilic is the latest surprise in Melbourne.

His rise in the rankings, precipitated by wins over Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Nikolay Davydenko late last year, was illuminating. In truth, however, no one expected the 21-year-old to reach his first Grand Slam semifinal in a section that included U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro and Tuesday afternoon's victim, an ailing Andy Roddick. If they did, they were lying.

Cilic, another big Croat (6-foot-6, like Argentina's del Potro), edged Roddick 7-6 (4), 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3 in 3 hours, 50 minutes in a buzzing Rod Laver Arena. He's kept it together mentally himself, winning a third five-setter this fortnight and recovering from a shocking fourth set in which he trailed Roddick 5-0 in quick time.

"I can have another five-setter," Cilic joked in a courtside interview with retired Grand Slam champion Jim Courier.

Facing three break points to start the fifth, Cilic, born five days after del Potro in 1988, got out of it by playing his usual aggressive tennis rather than waiting for an error. Roddick had a look at one return, mind you. Saving the game was the turning point.

"When I got out of it, I later started to serve even better," Cilic told reporters. "I was mentally fresher."

His first serve wasn't working for most of the battle, evidenced by a percentage of exactly 50, although it rose in the fifth. He did manage to thump 20 aces, five more than Roddick. When Roddick dumped a short backhand wide on match point, Cilic, not one to show much emotion, crumpled to the ground. He became the first Croatian man to reach the Australian Open semifinals. Roddick's seven-year wait to land Slam No. 2 extends further.

Coach Bob Brett says he started charting his pupil's path when Cilic was a teen. Brett has a history of guiding Croatians, working with Goran Ivanisevic, the 2001 Wimbledon champ, and Wimbledon semifinalist Mario Ancic.

"It's important to think about how a big guy, when he's 15, what he's going to try to have when he's 20, 21, 22, and what's going to be necessary to try to compete with the top guys," said Brett, whose relaxed, low-key approach is a perfect fit for Cilic.

Roddick's coach, Larry Stefanki, said last week the Texan was in great shape, having prospered in the offseason by lifting weights, and had no flaws in his game. How disappointing, then, for Roddick to suffer from a right shoulder injury. Relatively free of injuries for most of his career, they're beginning to mount. Roddick dealt with a shoulder problem in 2008 and hip and ankle complaints last year.

Roddick told ATP trainer Paul Ness following the first set that the shoulder felt numb. The malaise flared up in his five-set win over Fernando Gonzalez amid cool conditions Sunday night. He didn't practice yesterday and thought he aggravated something early in the opening set against Cilic.

"My arm is pretty much my livelihood," Roddick told reporters. "I asked [the trainer] if there was any risk involved with going further. He said he didn't think so. So from that point on, it was just a matter of go. They don't think it's going to be anything too serious long-term."

Feeling more pain when he hit with spin, Roddick flattened out his strokes, which actually helped. He had a golden chance to win the first, holding a set point at 5-4. Given a second serve, Roddick miscued, replying with a tame slice forehand return that Cilic subsequently smacked for a crosscourt winner.

It's onward and upward for Cilic, although not necessarily on Thursday.

"He's got a big game, a big power game," said Paul Annacone, the former coach of Pete Sampras and Tim Henman. "He can hurt any player from anywhere at any time, and that's dangerous to play against. He's in a good position because he's in the semis. Luckily he's young enough he can rebound [from five tough sets].

If he does, then Cilic might keep on surprising.