Marin Cilic and Kyle Edmund seem firm believers of it. On Tuesday, the two chose to take the high, attacking ground and put on a sparkling show of shot-making to score upset wins. Cilic pushed World No 1 Rafael Nadal to the absolute edge of the court, and his physical limit to win 3-6, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 2-0 (retired), while the 23-year-old Kyle Edmund played lights-out tennis to defeat World No 3 Grigor Dimitrov 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Armed with big strokes and a bigger heart, they took the attack to their more fancied opponents.
While Nadal’s retirement was unfortunate and abrupt, it couldn’t take the sheen completely of Cilic’s play. Tennis is often compared with boxing, not just for the thrill of the one-on-one fight but for the physical and mental blows they have to give and absorb. And the Croat was just a bit better at both: he threw enough punches to leave Nadal reeling. The injury took Nadal’s feet out from under him.
“In the end very unfortunate because Rafa is always fighting really hard, always giving the best on the court,” said Cilic after going toe-to-toe with the best competitor in the sport. “I was always in that process where I want to keep going with my own game and try to lift up, lift up, keep pushing as much as I can. So extremely pleased with the performance.”
Cilic knows how cruel the sport can be, and also that history is written by the winners. At the Wimbledon final last year against Roger Federer, Cilic was hobbled by foot blisters, which reduced him to tears by the end of a nightmarish outing on Centre Court on the last Sunday.
At the Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday evening though, a fully-fit Cilic proved more than a handful for Nadal. He refused to submit to Nadal’s iron will.
The Spaniard had come into the match with a 5-1 head-to-head record, and the first set showed why he had such a grip on the tall Croat and his many talents. While Cilic has a big serve and powerful ground strokes, he doesn’t quite have the patience to work them. Nadal, as always, was running down all the shots, loading them with top-spin and waiting for the Croat to pull the trigger. Cilic’s serve wasn’t quite as effective against one of the best returners of the game: though in the second and third set Nadal went almost as far back as Sydney to retrieve his wide serves.
And so it was that despite Cilic’s 20 aces in the match, he was the first to lose serve in the eighth game. Nadal won the set 6-3 and took a 3-2 lead in the second after Cilic served a double fault.
Aware of Spaniard’s speed and endless reserves, the 29-year-old had been going for the lines and the corners, playing high-risk tennis. All it needs is some confidence to make it high-reward. A Cilic forehand winner took him to deuce on Nadal’s serve in the sixth game. Though he missed the first break point, the Croat cracked an inside-out forehand winner to win the game on the second opportunity.
Cilic stayed close to Nadal from that moment on; he won the second set 6-3 and made the Spaniard chase the ball corner-to-corner. At 31, Nadal still has some cool wheels, but Cilic’s constant pressing was taking its toll. The Croat hit 83 winners, which included to two whizzing backhand cross-courts during the third-set tie-break, to ensure that the match stayed on his racquet. Though he lost the third set tie-break, he didn’t quite lose heart. The groundstrokes were still firing and fist still pumping.
When Cilic was 4-1 up in the fourth set, Nadal showed first signs of folding. He took a medical time-out and the trainer was seen working his right quad. There was one point when the Spaniard could barely jump up to serve and stood limply by the baseline as the returns flew past him. He fought back from 0-40 down twice in the set but couldn’t quite save it. He brought an end to his agony when Cilic took an assured 2-0 lead in the fifth.
“It's a negative thing, but I don't going to complain because happened to me more than others. But on other hand I was winning more than almost anyone. That's the real thing. But who knows, if I didn't have all these injuries...” Nadal trailed off.
It might be back to the rehab table for the Spaniard, but Cilic will march on. In the semi-finals, he will be up against a player who has refused to back down on every challenge thrown at him in Melbourne.
For a couple of years now, the tennis world has marvelled at Edmund’s destructive powers. A shy man from a varied background — born in South Africa, has a Welsh father and South African mother, grew up in Yorkshire, was into tennis, cricket and swimming, and is now settled in the Bahamas — the 23-year-old has found his focus this fortnight.
His forehand has blazed brighter than the Australian sun, burning opponents. He defeated 11thseed Kevin Anderson in five hard-fought sets, overcame almost 40°C heat and Nikoloz Basilashvili 7-6 (0), 3-6, 4-6, 6-0, 7-5 in the third round, and beat veteran Andreas Seppi to make his first Grand Slam quarterfinals.
He kept his nerves in check during an utterly entertaining and convincing win over third seed Dimitrov.
“I'm aware of the occasion, but really just tried to focus on my tennis, enjoy it as much as possible,” said Edmund, who became only the sixth British man to enter the semi-final of a Grand Slam. “In the key moments I maybe stepped up well and was brave, really went for my shots, and they came good.”
Edmund, coached by Swede Fredrik Rosengren (former coach of Magnus Norman, Robin Soderling) since last year, played his first match on the Rod Laver Arena and looked quite comfortable in it. He has learnt greater control, but Edmund’s all-out aggression leaves him with very little margin for error. In the quarterfinal, he hit 48 winners and 46 unforced errors. But he didn’t step back even after losing the second set. In the end, Dimitrov’s artful game proved no match for the Brit’s marauding power.
He’s not officially one of ATP’s Next Gen players, but the Brit is playing like the future, and indeed the present, belongs to him.