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Cilic adds name to Generation Next Add to ...

In the flood of weekly tennis results, it stood out like Rafael Nadal's biceps in the days of yore when he used to wear sleeveless tops - Marin Cilic's 6-1, 6-3 demolishing of the Spaniard in Saturday's semi-finals of the China Open in Beijing.

Nadal had not suffered such a serious beat-down since Jo-Wilfried Tsonga blasted him off the court 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 in the semi-finals of the 2008 Australian Open.

Cilic is hardly an unknown, in fact he is just five days younger, and ten spots lower in the rankings, than recent U.S. Open winner Juan Martin del Potro, the 21-year-old Argentine who ranks No. 5.

In Saturday's match, played in the same stadium where Nadal won the Olympic gold medal in singles at the 2008 Olympics, Cilic's firepower was astonishing. The ball rocketed off his racquet on the backhand and forehand sides with such explosive force that Nadal was in a totally defensive posture from the get-go - down 5-0 before he knew it and a 6-1 loser of the first set in just 23 minutes.

It could have been 3-0 for the Croat in the second set if he had capitalized on three break points when he led love-40 on Nadal's serve in the third game.

At that stage, No. 2-ranked Nadal got a bit of foothold in the match, able to finally match Cilic's tempo with a little help as his opponent made some unforced errors.

But the wiry, 6-foot-6 Cilic kept the faith and his composure, eventually winning the second set on his fifth match point - a beauty that consisted of a flat, hard forehand service return that pulled Nadal way out of court, opening it up for a final forehand that he thumped inside/in down-the-line, a winner well out of reach for Nadal.

"He played well and it was difficult to play for me," said Nadal, who wore a touristy ensemble consisting of a lime green shirt and dark-blue checked shorts. "[He]played fast and almost win all the time. Worst for me was when I have a chance to come back in the match and I didn't play very well. I can do better next time."

If the comparison to the Tsonga loss in Australia is valid, Nadal, 23, should be reassured because he has beaten the Frenchman in their two subsequent matches, although both went to three sets and were close.

Cilic, who upset Andy Murray at the U.S. Open before losing in four sets to del Potro in the quarter-finals after leading by a set and 3-1, said, comparing his play to the way he was at Flushing Meadows, "over here [in Beijing]I put many more pieces together in the game and over there I had some moments where I played great at the beginning of a set or something. But here I am starting off from the beginning and not letting my level drop. I am putting together my pieces of the game and doing well from the beginning to the end."

In Sunday's final, Cilic will play world No. 4 Novak Djokovic, who defeated Robin Soderling 6-3, 6-3 in the semi-finals. The Serb is 3-0 head-to-head with Cilic.

If Djokovic and Murray, who are both 22 and have birthdays a week apart in May, are considered to be the generation behind Roger Federer and Nadal, then del Potro, Cilic and the recently re-emerging Ernests Gulbis of Latvia are right on their heels - they all share birthdays within a month in August and September, 1988.

While del Potro and Cilic have already made strong statements with their recent results, the No. 98-ranked Gulbis (he has been as high as No. 38) has languished and his inability to exploit his major-league ability to crush the ball remains something of a mystery.

But after failing to even get out of the qualifying at hard courts events in Los Angeles, Washington, Montreal and Cincinnati this past summer - he won two rounds in Tokyo this week before losing 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 to Tsonga, the same man who beat him 6-7(3), 7-6(4), 7-6(2) the previous week in Bangkok.

So, top-ranked Federer (back) and No. 3 Murray (wrist), who are both skipping the Masters Series event in Shanghai from October 12-18, may find a changed competitive landscape when they rejoin the tour later this fall.

Gulbis, if he gets past a qualifier in the first round, will play Djokovic in the second round in Shanghai, presenting him with an opportunity to demonstrate he can knock off the big boys just like his peers Cilic and del Potro.

 

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