After third-round upsets on Thursday, fifth seed Marin Cilic has become favourite to make it out of the top half of the draw – if he can avoid a shock defeat of his own at the hands of Albert Ramos-Vinolas in Friday’s Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters quarterfinals.
Thursday’s round of 16 matches at the 2017 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters saw several shocks in the top half of the draw which have opened up major opportunities for unexpected contenders – not least fifth seed Marin Cilic, the only top-eight seed left in the top half of the draw.
Cilic was not widely discussed as a potential contender coming into the first clay-court Masters 1000 Series event of the year. The 2014 US Open champion has won just one Masters 1000 Series event in his career, at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati in 2016 – and there were some special circumstances in operation, with the tournament following directly on from the Rio Olympics and a depleted and exhausted field. Before Cincinnati last August, Cilic had never even made a Masters 1000 Series semifinal – although he went on to make the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris last autumn, beating Novak Djokovic on the way – and only two of the handful of Masters 1000 Series quarterfinals he has made have come on clay, in Rome in 2011 and at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters itself in 2015.
Of the world no. 8’s 16 career titles, only one has come on clay, at the quite minor 250-level Umag event in Croatia back in 2012, and one doesn’t really expect Cilic to be a particular force on clay – but he’s perfectly competent on that surface, although his game is a better natural fit for faster courts.
The question now for Cilic is whether he can take advantage of the unexpected gift of a draw he’s been handed at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters. The other top-eight seeds in his half of the draw have all gone out: Top seed Andy Murray, out to Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the round of 16; third seed and former champion Stan Wawrinka, out to Pablo Cuevas on the same day; while seventh seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga didn’t even make it to the third round, out to Adrian Mannarino in the second round. Cilic, meanwhile, has gone about his business quite undramatically, trouncing Jeremy Chardy 6-3, 6-0 in the second round before snuffing out a late attempt at a comeback from former runner-up Tomas Berdych in Thursday’s third-round clash: Berdych broke back as Cilic served for the match, only to get shut out in the tie break for a 6-2, 7-6(0) win for the fifth seed.
That leaves Cilic facing Murray’s conqueror, the unseeded Ramos-Vinolas, in Friday’s quarterfinals and 11th seed Lucas Pouille or 16th seed Pablo Cuevas in Saturday’s semifinals – not inconsiderable opposition by any means, but a really great opportunity for Cilic to make the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters final. It would be a major boost to the Croatian’s rather lackluster season so far, which has seen him go 7-7 and reach a solitary semifinal (in Acapulco, where he lost in straight sets to Rafael Nadal), with first-round defeats in Chennai, Montpellier and at the Indian Wells and Miami Masters.
Of course, the very fact that Ramos-Vinolas made it to the quarterfinals by defeating world no. 1 Andy Murray – clawing his way back from an 0-4 deficit in the third set to win 2-6, 6-2, 7-5 – means that the Spanish player should not be taken lightly. Murray, as we all know, is having a disappointing and difficult season so far and returned to action this week after a five-week absence due to an elbow injury, but this match was about Ramos-Vinolas’s determination and resilience as much as Murray’s increasingly scratchy tennis and inability to hang on to a lead in the face of the Spanish player’s relentless grinding.
‘The most normal thing would be to lose the match,’ Ramos-Vinolas said of being 0-4 down in the third set. ‘But today it’s one of those days that sometimes happens. I still fought. I was fighting. I was 0-4, and I thought that I need to keep playing every point. Then, at the end, I won. I don’t know what to say.’
It’s the best win of Ramos-Vinolas’s career – the Spanish player was 3-26 against top-10 players, although he had beaten Roger Federer at the Shanghai Masters in 2015 – and comes when the 29-year-old is at a career-high ranking of world no. 24, having won his maiden title in Bastad in 2016 as well as finishing runner-up to Karen Khachanov in Chengdu and making his first Grand Slam quarterfinal with a win over Milos Raonic at the French Open. Unsurprisingly, his strongest results of 2017 so far have come on clay, with semifinal appearances at the Ecuador Open in Quito and the Rio Open in Rio de Janeiro; like Cuevas, Ramos-Vinolas has already played a large number of matches on clay so far this season (19, in Ramos-Vinolas’s case) while most of the top players are competing for the first time in 2017 on the surface this week, a factor that surely plays into some of the shock results we have seen.
Cilic and Ramos-Vinolas have played four times in the past, with Cilic enjoying a comfortable 3-1 lead in the head-to-head. Ramos-Vinolas won their first encounter, back at the Shanghai Masters in 2011, but since then it’s been all Cilic in straight sets, including their only clay-court encounter, a 6-4, 7-6(5) win for Cilic in Hamburg in 2012. Cilic definitely has the weapons to overpower Ramos-Vinolas, but it’s a question of how effectively and with what degree of precision he can employ them against the Spanish player’s excellent defense and all-court game. The match should be on Cilic’s racquet – but that’s no degree of victory for the world no. 8. Nor is the size of the opportunity he could potentially be squandering at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters on Friday.
Cilic vs Ramos-Vinolas is scheduled on Court Rainer III on Friday at 11am local/10am BST