By Pritha Sarkar
PARIS (Reuters) - Marin Cilic cannot get enough of pursuing his new number one hobby -- polishing the life-size replica U.S. Open trophy that now sits proudly on a mantelpiece in his Zagreb home.
"I have to (polish it myself), it's my friend now. I have to see it every day," the 26-year-old Croatian told Reuters in an interview as he broke into laughter.
That trophy not only realized a dream that had been two decades in the making, it also brought joy to Cilic following a tumultuous 2013 when he served a four-month doping suspension after testing positive for a banned stimulant that had been present in some glucose powder he had ingested.
While doping authorities acknowledged the Croatian had 'inadvertently ingested nikethamide and did not intend to enhance his performance in doing so', the episode allowed Cilic to re-evaluate his life.
"It changed me (as a person). At that time I found out who are my close friends, and those who pretend to be my friends... It made me more aware of what kind of people I have around me," Cilic said as he stroked his dark beard.
"I was very surprised with Novak (Djokovic). He stepped up for me ... I think rarely you'll see someone at the top of any sport expose themselves like he did. I'll be very grateful to him for the rest of my life for the ... way he supported me.
"It made me stronger inside and I don't get stressed by some difficult times or some difficult days."
Unsurprisingly, life on the tennis tour is no longer as carefree as it used to be before for Cilic.
"Even in the locker rooms I always carry my bottle around and if I don't see it I always take a new one," he said.
"(Things like) massage creams, sun creams, I always check if it’s alright. I’ve become more careful with everything, if you burn yourself, that's what happens."
The fun times, however, are never far away, especially when Cilic hired a coach who had no problems admitting that he was a 'Teletubbies' fan despite being in his 30s.
Goran Ivanisevic not only passed on his grand slam-winning formula to his charge, the 2001 Wimbledon champion also made Cilic follow some of his other unconventional methods of success during his run to the Flushing Meadows title.
LITTLE BIT ITCHY
"My physio, my fitness coach and Goran, they would go every morning to the same place to have same coffee, same breakfast, same muffin. On the off days we would go to the same restaurant, tried to pick the same practice court, transportations at the same time. It goes on and on," laughed Cilic.
"Me and Goran did not shave since the beginning of the tournament and after the quarters it became a little bit itchy so I said I might shave and he goes 'you're near the end of the tournament you can survive another three days you might just leave that for after the tournament'.
"When the routine starts, you don’t wanna stop."
That routine not only helped him to achieve one of his ambitions of qualifying for the elite season-ending ATP Tour World Finals for the first time in his career, it has also turned him into a national hero in Croatia.
"Winning the U.S. Open... I felt Croatian people who are not so close to tennis, it changed their life a little bit, they were connected with this huge success that came into their lives, in their daily routine and it made them happy and made them proud to be Croatian," Cilic said.
He is now eager to carry on that form for one final title push this season.
A right-arm injury, which he described as "a small problem with the bones", has prevented Cilic from playing competitively in the three weeks leading up to the London finale but despite that setback he is looking forward to his O2 adventure.
"This season I played really, really well and my tennis level rose a couple steps and that gave me a lot of satisfaction," he said.
"Obviously winning grand slam is the biggest satisfaction that I have and the biggest result but to compete at the World Tour Finals means that I have been playing well and consistently during the whole season and that I deserve my spot to be there and it's a great motivation for next year to compete at the ATP World Tour finals. It's the best reward."
The Barclays ATP World Tour Finals will be held at The O2 from Nov 9-16.
(Editing by Julien Pretot)