Cilic outlasts Isner in five-setter

Leave it to Rafa Nadal to play a mediocre match, but still find a way to face down talented local 18-year-old Bernard Tomic, 6-2, 7-5, 6-3, to earn his place in the last 16 of the Australian Open.

Unfortunately for American fans, the No. 1 Spaniard will meet Marin Cilic, who won a marathon over marathon man John Isner, 4-6, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-6 (2), 9-7. It was yet another healthy effort for the Wimbledon folk hero, but at this stage in his career, it was a contest he absolutely had to put away.

Isner served huge as always, ripped his forehand and for the most part stayed with 2010 Aussie Open semifinalist Cilic from the backcourt. But he was plagued by a poor return game, only converting 1 of 11 break points in the nearly five-hour death march.

"I would have liked to play better during the course of the match," he said. "I felt like it was one . . . I should have won. It’s disappointing. I’ve got to get through that match. It came down to a few points here and there and (I) didn’t win the big points and convert on my break points. When you’re not going to do that, you’re in trouble.

"I just wasn’t making enough balls. Credit to him. He played well on the big points, going for his shots and making them. I could have been more aggressive maybe. The match comes down to here and there."

Cilic is just as talented as Isner, so the defeat cannot be entirely placed on the American’s shoulders. But he played an atrocious fourth-set tiebreaker, double-faulting twice to lose it. In the fifth set, he had one break point at 2-2, and Cilic stepped in and nailed a forehand winner down the line.

In the final game, with Isner frustrated with his inability to make an impression, Cilic was fortunate to get a net-cord winner and then forced Isner into a forehand error. There would not be another historic win of the kind he hung on Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon.

"I’d like to have that one back," Isner said of the fourth-set tiebreaker. "Missed a forehand, double-faulted twice. I was terrible. Never in it. God, I wish I could have played better there.

"I was confident that I’d pull through all along in the fifth set. I thought I was going to win it. You’re in that situation with a good crowd and support, I wasn’t feeling it fatigue-wise. It’s disappointing, but I’m not going to hang my head on it. I just didn’t put the balls in."

So now it will be Cilic who will meet Nadal in a Grand Slam and not Isner, who missed out on a similar opportunity at Wimbledon as he didn’t have the legs to stand in with Thiemo de Bakker after his marathon victory over Mahut when he conceivably could have met Nadal in the fourth round. The same went in Australia, where there will be no marquee matchup against the world’s best, only a long flight back to the States, where he can try and figure out a way to get significant returns back in play and control the court when he isn’t bombing serves.

"To get a shot against a guy like that at a Grand Slam, I would have loved to play him," Isner said. "I’ll get there eventually, get a shot at a guy like him."

Isner calls Cilic "fit and he’s elastic," a 6-foot 5 big hitter who goes for his shots, can serve huge and can dominate points from the backcourt. But while Cilic certainly looked the part of a top-five-player-to-be when he reached the semifinals last year, he had a lousy last eight months of the 2010 season. It’s been only here in Melbourne where he looks like a player to watch again.

But what chance does he stand against Nadal with tired legs? There’s an extremely outside possibility that he could catch fire and knock out Nadal in three sets, but it’s more than likely that he’ll have to go at least three hours to subdue the Spaniard. Given that Nadal was able to figure out the deceptive and talented Tomic and not drop a set while often being at B-level, it’s hard to see Cilic being able to steamroll a guy who over the past year has played better with each passing match at a Slam.

Nadal will demand a lot more of himself against Cilic after what he likely considered to be a shaky performance against Tomic. Given how much he demands out of himself, expect him to bear down early.

His half of the draw is now shaping up to be extremely interesting, with familiar faces like his 2010 conqueror Andy Murray facing the threatening veteran Juergen Melzer, No. 4 Robin Soderling having to go up against the young and talented Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov, and Nadal’s Davis Cup teammate, David Ferrer, having to face another young talent, Canadian Milos Raonic.

Rafa will remain the favorite to reach the final once again, but it’s conceivable that in getting there he might have to best three other guys who are younger than him. If that happens, the 24-year-old Spaniard likely will have a blast in trying to figure them out, just like he did in unearthing Tomic. It’s just too bad for Isner that he couldn’t put Nadal to the test and show the world that he’s a lot more than 6-foot-9 inch guy with a firebombing serve and forehand.