Tennis: Cilic looking to end 32-month title drought at Singapore Open

Marin Cilic is two titles away from becoming just the sixth active player to lift 20 Tour-level titles. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - The last time Marin Cilic played in Singapore, his UAE Royals team lost both their 2015 International Premier Tennis League ties.

The Croatian returns to the Republic for the Feb 22-28 Singapore Tennis Open with much more at stake, as he seeks to win his first ATP title in over two years.

Much has changed for the 32-year-old since he came here for the exhibition event.

The 2014 US Open Champion added to his resume by winning the 2016 Cincinnati Masters and 2018 Davis Cup. But the world No. 43 has yet to lift silverware since victory at the Queen's Club Championships in London in June 2018.

Cilic is two titles away from becoming just the sixth active player to lift 20 Tour-level titles, after Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro.

He is the third seed at the ATP 250 tournament - behind French world No. 36 Adrian Mannarino and Australian world No. 39 John Millman - and will in the last 16 meet either Japanese Taro Daniel or Indian Ramkumar Ramanathan, who play the opening match on Monday (Feb 22) at the OCBC Arena.

His main competition will be top seed Mannarino and Millman, who won his first ATP singles title last November at the Astana Open in Kazakhstan after beating Mannarino in the final.

The US$300,000 (S$397,740) Singapore Open was a late addition to the men's circuit's calendar and will feature a 28-strong singles field and 16-pair doubles field.

The top four seeds, including Alexander Bublik, received a bye in the first round.

Millman, who is in the same half of the draw as Cilic, will play either Matthew Ebden, fresh off an Australian Open mixed doubles final appearance, or Indian Yuki Bhambri, who has not played a professional match since October 2018 because of a torn tendon in his right knee.

Locals Shaheed Alam and Roy Hobbs will be in action in the doubles event on Monday after receiving a wildcard.

The tournament follows the Australian Open, which ended on Sunday, in Melbourne, where some players will be coming from.

Two other ATP events - the Cordoba Open in Argentina and the Open Sud de France in Montpellier - are taking place in the same week.

At least 200 people, including players, staff and officials, are expected to be coming from overseas for the Singapore Open and will have to take daily polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests throughout their stay here. They will be further isolated in individual team bubbles, among other safety measures in place.

Japanese player Daniel posted a video on Twitter of a staff member wearing a mask, face shield and gloves fogging his luggage after arriving in Singapore on Feb 17 with a caption in Japanese saying it was like sci-fi.

Japanese No. 2 and fifth seed Yoshihito Nishioka, who faces American Michael Mmoh in the first round, told The Straits Times in a video interview via Zoom that he was excited to be in Singapore for the first time.

He said: "I wanted to go out but it's not possible this time. Next time, if I come to visit Singapore, I want to go sightseeing and see some beautiful things here.

"It's a little tough now that I have to stay in the hotel room every day so I can't eat Singaporean food or see things but I'm very happy to be here after the Australian Open."

Nishioka, 25, was knocked out in the first round of the year's first Major and said he has taken the two-week break to change his mindset and he is now fitter and in better condition for the Singapore Open.

He added: "It is not easy to stay in the hotel room all the time because we need to be relaxed. We can't talk to each other in this tournament and I eat breakfast, lunch, dinner on my own which is a bit sad.

"But I understand that we have to be careful and that everyone is trying to be safe for us so I appreciate it but it's also a bit tough."

Mentioning Daniel's video in a virtual media conference on Friday, organising chairman and Sport Singapore chief executive Lim Teck Yin said: "Kudos to all the players and their entourage for taking things in stride. They want to be here and they appreciate that we're putting every effort to not just keep Singapore safe but also keep them safe.

"We're sparing no effort to adapt to their feedback, whether it's additional food or opportunities for more sparring partners among themselves... how we make those arrangements so that the level of interaction is still acceptable."

The Singapore Tennis Open will be held behind closed doors but up to 250 fans may be allowed for the semi-finals and final if there are no tournament-related positive coronavirus cases, among other factors like local transmissions, the organisers said on Friday.

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