Cilic Wins St. Petersburg Battle Over Bautista Agut

Marin Cilic (photo: St. Petersburg Open)

ST. PETERSBURG/WASHINGTON, October 29, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Throughout this week’s St. Petersburg Open in Russia’s cultural capital city, Croatia’s Marin Cilic has responded well to handling break points. During his quarterfinal match Friday afternoon in Sibur Arena, the 2011 St. Petersburg Open champion saved eight in the first set alone – including five in the fourth game of the match. He would go on to save 13 in all.

Cilic’s resiliency and ability to handle pressure well throughout his two-hour and 33-minute quarterfinal against a familiar foe, Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain, especially during a 10-deuce, 26-point marathon eighth game that he lost on a double fault during the second set – and to be able to reset – paid off nicely in a hard-fought 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory for him.

The World No. 35 Cilic saved his best for last after he broke the 20th-ranked Bautista Agut on his third try during the 10-point sixth game of the final set to go ahead 4-2. On his final service game, at 5-3, he closed out the win with back-to-back aces – his 18th and 19th – to secure victory. It moved him into his second straight semifinal in Russia, a week after achieving the feat in Moscow and it gave Cilic his sixth career win over Bautista Agut in eight meetings going back to 2014.

“Today was a difficult match mentally,” Cilic admitted during his post-match, on-court interview. “It was very, very different from yesterday [against Karen Khachanov]. The last game proved it. In the first two points I just missed a forehand here and there, and then hit a great forced serve.

“Throughout the match, I was up and down. I could feel I didn’t have great rhythm but I felt in the end I’m getting chances and I had to stay mentally ready.”

On serve through the first four games of this very evenly-matched quarterfinal between two well-tested veterans of the ATP Tour, Cilic and Bautista Agut, both 33, broke each other’s service before Cilic pushed ahead with his second straight break of the Spaniard to garner a 4-3 advantage. He consolidated the break with a hold to go ahead 5-3. Then, after Bautista Agut held, Cilic responded with his seventh ace and put away the 56-minute set 6-4 with a statement-making forehand volley winner coming into the net.

Then, Cilic pushed hard and broke through on his second opportunity against Bautista Agut in the fifth game to go ahead 3-2, needing to only hold his serve three more times. However, Bautista Agut wasn’t ready to concede. He broke back in the next game to level the set after Cilic hit a net-cord return that bounced outside the line and quashed a nine-shot rally, then held his own serve during a 10-point game in which he fended off a break point from Cilic. Bautista Agut would go on to level the match at a set each after breaking through during the lengthy eighth game and winning the 59-minute second set.

Finally, on serve at 3-2 in the decider, Cilic broke Bautista Agut on his third break-point chance to close out a 10-point game and held at love for 5-2. A game later, after trailing 0-30, Cilic shut down Bautista Agut by winning the final four points of the match. His 29th triumph of the season and a trip to Saturday’s semifinals was assured. Now the former World No. 3 is knocking on the door to regain a Top-30 ranking.

Cilic won 80 percent (47 of 59) of his first-serve points, saved 13 of 16 break points he faced while breaking Bautista Agut four times in 11 opportunities and outpointed his opponent 104-100.

“We’ve always had great battles, the last two matches of five sets and all our matches are always difficult,” Cilic said. “You could see that in the second set. Roberto started to play much better, got the break back and it was one of the longest games in my career – maybe the longest one. I think it was around 20 minutes. I dropped my serve there, but then I kept hanging in there mentally.”

Next, Cilic will face unseeded Botic van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands, who was a surprise 6-3, 6-4 winner over World No. 6 and top seed Andrey Rublev, the last of the Russians to fall in the main draw following the exits of wild card Evgenii Tiurnev in the first round and No. 4 seed Aslan Karatsev and No. 6 seed Karen Khachanov in the second round.

Van de Zandschulp garners first Top 10 victory

The 69th-ranked van de Zandschulp has calmly flown under the radar this week but without dropping a set in any of his three victories, against 82nd-ranked Japanese qualifier Yoshihito Nishioka, No. 8 seed Sebastian Korda of the United States, ranked 38th, and Rublev.

Van de Zandschulp’s straight-set win over Rublev, completed in an hour and 34 minutes and filled with the right touch and guile, saw him hit five aces, convert four of nine break-point chances and outpoint Rublev 73-60. Now, the 26-year-old qualifier from Wagenringen is into his first ATP Tour semifinal.

From 3-4 down in the second set, van de Zandschulp went on to win the final three games of the match, which included two breaks of Rublev. He closed out the victory on his second match point try by simply outplaying Rublev.

“First time for me in the semis, it feels amazing. I played a great match,” van de Zandschulp expressed during his on-court interview that followed his win. “I played a smart match, so I’m glad to be through.”

Van de Zandschulp was asked what to expect against Cilic in Saturday’s semifinal round. He said: “He made the final last week in Moscow, he’s playing great at the moment. I think he’s serving well and playing very aggressive from the baseline. I think it’s going to be an interesting match.”

Fritz playing his best tennis of his career

A day after celebrating his 24th birthday, American Taylor Fritz reached his second straight semifinal with his 6-4, 6-2 victory over John Millman of Australia that began a day of quarterfinal action at Sibur Arena. After garnering a final-four berth at Indian Wells recently, Fritz has been playing some of the best tennis of his young career. Now, he’s strung together consecutive semifinal berths – he’s reached six semifinals overall this season – in transitioning successfully from outdoor to indoor play.

On serve through the first eight games after exchanging consecutive service breaks early on, the World No. 28 Fritz broke Millman in the ninth game to go ahead 5-4. Then, he closed out the 39-minute opening set on a strong note with his fourth ace.

At the outset of the second set, Fritz broke the No. 57 Millman and consolidated the break for a 2-0 advantage. The Australian No. 3, who was looking to get past the quarterfinal stage – something he’s not done in his past four tournaments – faced an uphill climb. Soon, Fritz went ahead a double-break lead 5-2 and promptly closed out the second set and the 73-minute quarterfinal on his first match-point opportunity.

“I came out and played really well today, and I knew what I had to do and did it,” Fritz said during an on-court interview after his seventh win in his last eight matches. He’s yet to drop a set in St. Petersburg through his first three matches. “I played well and I’m happy to be in the semifinals.”

Later in press, Fritz was asked what it would take to reach the finals of St. Petersburg after playing in six semifinals already this season. He said:

“It seems to me not to think and not worry so much about the fact that this is already a semifinal, but simply to show the same level of play that I showed in the first two matches at this tournament. And then I will have a chance and an opportunity to get to the final.”

The American No. 3, who improved to 2-0 lifetime against Millman, finished with five aces, lost just seven points on his first serve and outpointed his opponent 56-44 to advance against No. 53 Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany, who upset No. 2 seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada, 6-4, 6-3, in an hour and 20 minutes.

Struff reaches second semifinal of season

Struff began the match quickly against the World No. 13 Shapovalov by breaking the Canadian in back-to-back service games while consolidating both for a 4-0 lead in the first set. Then, Shapovalov got one of the breaks back on his fifth break-point opportunity in the sixth game as he strung together three straight games in his favor. However, Struff recovered to win the 45-minute opening set 6-4.

Next, as the second set unfolded, Struff pressured Shapovalov in the fifth game and broke him to push ahead, then held for a 4-2 advantage as he continued to be the more steady of the two competitors. Soon, after Struff held for 5-3, he put away the quarterfinal match with his fourth break and on his third match-point opportunity as Shapovalov airmailed a backhand far beyond the baseline. It added up to a satisfying victory for the German, his fifth in seven career head-to-head meetings against Shapovalov. Struff won 88 percent (22 of 25) of his first-serve points, saved four of five break points, captured nearly half of his return points and outpointed Shapovalov 62-45.

“Denis is an amazing player, so the victory means a lot to me, to reach the semifinals here for a second time,” Struff said on court in an interview after his victory. “I knew I had to put a lot of energy into the match today and I did. I was serving good and defending good and playing well from the baseline. I was pretty ready for the match.

“I stayed aggressive and I’m happy with the last game,” Struff added. “I put a lot of pressure on him, I’m happy with my returning.”

In press, Shapovalov called his loss “a very tough match.” He said of Struff: “He played really good at the very high level. I had a hard time getting into the match; I’m still a bit jetlagged. I think the schedule is pretty tough with my jet lag – playing first and playing last, playing earlier again. So, it’s back and forth all the time.

“I wasn’t really able to adjust well with my body throughout the week. I had a slow start and it’s tough to come back in the first set when you are playing such a big server like Struffy and the second set was just too good of him. That’s pretty much it. I just ran out of time.”

Struff, who hasn’t lost a set this week, improved to 23-26 and now is into his second semifinal of the season and second at St. Petersburg.

Around the St. Petersburg Open

• No. 4 doubles seeds Andrey Golubev of Kazakhstan and Hugo Nys of Monaco reached the semifinals with a 7-6 (4), 6-3 win over Santiago Gonzalez of Mexico and Andres Molteni of Argentina. On Saturday, they will face Rohan Bopanna of India and Denis Shapovalov of Canada in the semifinal round.

• In the first doubles semifinal, No. 1 seeds Jamie Murray of Great Britain and Bruno Soares of Brazil defeated Marcelo Demoliner of Brazil and Marcus Daniell of New Zealand, 7-5, 6-3, in an hour and 20 minutes to reach their third title match of the season. The British/Brazilian duo has won one title this season – at the Great Ocean Road in Melbourne – and reached the final in another.

Saturday’s St Petersburg Open order of play

By the numbers

Since ending a three-match losing streak – which included back-to-back first-round losses at the US Open and in Metz – Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany is 5-2 in his last three tournaments – Indian Wells, Antwerp and St. Petersburg.

“Quotable …”

“I finally feel again, like when I was 17-18 years-old, when you play key points in rallies and do not think about what will happen. You do not worry, but just perform your best punches. This kind of composure returned to me again.”

Taylor Fritz of the United States, during his press conference after his quarterfinal victory over John Millman on whether he’s become calmer in difficult situations. The No. 5 seed is the only seeded player remaining in the semifinal round.