Q+A: Bjorkman relishing Cilic challenge

Published by Matt Trollope

Jonas Bjorkman has been working full-time with Marin Cilic since the start of this season. Photo: Getty Images
Jonas Bjorkman, the former world No.4 now working with Marin Cilic, spoke to us about what he can offer a player who’s already attained the highest level in the sport and how the Croatian could fare at the upcoming French Open.

Jonas Bjorkman already knew Marin Cilic very well when in 2016 he received a call from the Croatian Grand Slam champion, who was looking for a new coach after his partnership with Goran Ivanisevic ended.

Bjorkman accepted, and began working with Cilic around the time of the Rio Olympics. Already with several commitments locked in for the rest of the year, Bjorkman – a former world No.4 from Sweden who previously coached Andy Murray – only worked with Cilic again at the US Open and at the World Tour Finals that year.

Despite the limited time working face-to-face they were in regular contact on the phone during the 2016 fall season and have since moved to a more permanent player-coach relationship in 2017. 

If all goes well this year, Bjorkman said the pair will continue working together.

Bjorkman spoke to Tennismash.com about his working relationship with the top 10 star, what he feels he can offer a player who’s already achieved the peak of a major title and how Cilic could fare at Roland Garros, beginning later this week.

Tennismash: How has the partnership with Marin been so far?
Bjorkman: I think it’s been great. We know each other really well. He came as a youngster to San Remo [Bob Brett’s academy] and he actually was a little bit of a hitting partner when he was maybe 17, when I lived down there as well. So he was joining in with everyone – me and Thomas Johansson were at the academy there and at the time we used Marin. He was great to practice with. He helped me a lot when he called me and asked me if I could join his team. There are a few guys in the team that I know since the past. It felt really easy to get into the group and it’s been a lot of fun so far. We obviously try to work on a few things … It’s nice to start working with someone that you have a little bit of a relationship with before, so you can get started much quicker.

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How would you assess his 2017 season?
End of last year he played some great tennis. I think the long season affected him a little bit, (which is the reason he’s) maybe starting a bit slower this year. He didn’t have a long break or a long pre-season – he had to shorten everything because of the great success of last year, which unfortunately ended with losing Davis Cup. That would have been sort of the perfect finish. But we started now to pick up the pace a little bit – I think he’s been playing some really good tennis on the clay courts. So I think he’s getting to the form where he ended last year.

Were you conscious of the successful partnership he had for several years with Goran Ivanisevic?
No, not really. Because I know him I’m aware of the great success he had with Goran. Marin is a guy that I’ve always been hoping to do well since the relationship we have. But once you get into the coaching role, it’s like, ‘OK, I have to look at what’s ahead of me. What can I do to help him achieve his dreams and goals?’ I cannot really look backwards. I’ve just got to try to do everything I can to get him to the position where he can continue his success, and hopefully achieve even more.

Marin has achieved his best results on faster surfaces. How does this affect his mentality and approach to the claycourt season?
We definitely approach the claycourt season really seriously because he’s one of those players who grew up on clay and played a lot and is comfortable … If I remember correctly I think he’s a junior champion at Roland Garros [ed. Cilic won the boys’ singles title at Roland Garros in 2005]. I definitely think it’s a surface that suits him really really well.

I think it’s a mental approach where he maybe hasn’t believed in himself to do that good on clay, and sometimes it’s easy when you have success on other surfaces that you feel, maybe this is not me, maybe my best is on the other surfaces. So I think the approach to this clay season was to try and win a title, which he accomplished in Istanbul. And then he had some great opportunities to do even better at the Masters events but he hasn’t really been taking the chances. But I definitely see him as a big threat for Roland Garros with his game, and we’re going to Paris with I think quite a lot of confidence of playing well the last couple of weeks, and still missing the last piece which hopefully we will all see in Paris.

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How does working with Marin compare to your time coaching Andy Murray?
They’re similar in a way because they both wanted to improve and be more aggressive. So both of them want to be more comfortable coming forward and how to cover the net the best way possible. So in that way it’s been quite the same. I would say Andy was more aggressive when he was younger – for him it was more in himself. With Marin it takes maybe a little bit longer to feel comfortable to do it in a match, not only practice, to hit that good shot and follow up and continue forward and hit that volley. Obviously two different characters, but in the sort of style of game they’re not far off in how they play. Obviously Andy has a bigger group around him, but with both guys I had the great advantage of knowing them in the past, so with that it was really easy to get into Andy’s team, and same with Marin. So that’s been helping a lot to help me quickly adjust and be part of a team. Everyone has been very welcoming when I’ve come in there so that’s been really good.”

As a coach, where can you take a player who’s already reached the pinnacle of the sport – winning a Major title?
I think once you’ve achieved winning one, it’s all about winning more. Like when Roger won his first one, there’s no doubt one is nice, but you want to win more. And it’s all about winning titles. I think in Marin’s case, he wants to be more consistent, week in and week out. And that’s something we obviously will try to work together on and get him to that stage. If he can be more consistent it’s a better opportunity to win more titles and to hopefully win more big ones. He had that great success winning the Open playing superb tennis. We know his qualities when he’s playing his best tennis – he can beat anyone. I still think there’s opportunities for Marin to win more.

What is the philosophy when it comes to coaching a player who has achieved greater heights than yourself? Although you went deep at majors, you didn’t win a singles Slam like Marin did …
I haven’t thought before the way you are thinking. For me it’s not negative, not achieving the same as what your player has. I still think you have the possibility to help out quite a lot. Magnus Norman is a great example – he didn’t win a Slam, and Stan didn’t win one initially, but after he won one they were able to win more. So I don’t think it has to be negative. I still think you have a lot of experience to help them get to that level.”

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