NEW YORK — Marin Cilic wasn’t allowed to play last year in the U.S. Open, forced to the sideline by a four-month doping suspension that he says he didn’t deserve.
Home in Croatia, he set about improving his game and his fitness, eager to be a better player when he returned to the tennis tour.
Now, he figures, that time off from competition is paying off on the court.
The 14th-seeded Cilic reached the second Grand Slam semifinal of his career, and first since 2010, by beating sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (4) Thursday at Flushing Meadows.
“I mean, it was a difficult period. I didn’t know when I’m going to start back. But (it) was also (a) good period for me,” Cilic said, thinking back to 12 months ago. “I matured a bit more and I was working, day after day. I wasn’t relaxing and doing nothing. So I think that helped me to improve physically. Also, it helped me to have enough time to put some new parts in my game, which are helping me to play this good now.”
Cilic, a former top-10 player, tested positive for a stimulant after a match in Germany in May 2013, and the International Tennis Federation sought a two-year ban. He said he ingested the substance unintentionally via a glucose tablet bought at a pharmacy.
He initially was suspended for nine months, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced that to four months on appeal last October, saying, “the sanction imposed was too severe.” The court also restored ranking points and prize money that had been taken from Cilic.
“It angered me how all the process went, because it was not fair to me. It wouldn’t be fair to any tennis player,” Cilic said Thursday. “So that was just very bad memories. But, you know, when you’re against big organizations, you are (a) small hand. You can’t do much. So I just accepted it. ... I erased it from my memory.”
In his first major semifinal since the Australian Open four years ago, Cilic will face 17-time major champion Roger Federer or 20th-seeded Gael Monfils, who were scheduled to meet Thursday night.
No matter the opponent Saturday, Cilic thinks he’s playing better than ever.
Sure looked that way against Berdych, the 2010 Wimbledon runner-up.
Both men are gifted servers, but that stroke failed Berdych on a wind-swept afternoon. Broken a total of four times through his first four matches, he lost four of his first five service games against Cilic, the first man from Croatia in the U.S. Open semifinals since his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, in 1996.
“Really, my serve was off,” Berdych lamented. “Horrible from the beginning.”
Through those initial five service games, he hit five double-faults and won only 8 of 25 points.
“Was very tricky with the conditions. Very gusty,” Cilic said. “Not easy to deal with the wind and with ... the ball moving in the air. I felt that I was using the wind a bit better today.”
Berdych seemed to making things a little more interesting in the third set, going up a break. But serving at 4-2, 30-15, he wound up in a protracted argument with chair umpire Louise Azemar Engzell over whether a ball had bounced twice before a lunging Berdych was able to put his racket on it.
“Have you ever had a racket in your hand?” he asked her. “This is a horrible call. This is (an) absolutely horrible call. There is absolutely no explanation.”
That’s not the sort of ruling that’s subject to replay review in tennis, although a slow-motion shot showed that ball did, in fact, bounce a fraction of a second before Berdych got to it. He lost the next two points, too, to get broken, and Cilic was back in control.
And, of course, he’s thrilled to be back on the circuit – and back in the latter stages of a major tournament.
He still harbors disappointment over the way his drug case was handled and says he never got a full explanation.
But Cilic also feels as though he’s embarked on a second career, in a way.
“I felt that sort of my game just transformed,” he said of his time away, “and I was able to, when I came back, start from zero.”