Dream Team: How Goran Ivanisevic inspired Marin Cilic to hit the heights

    Story highlights

    • 2014 has been Marin Cilic's most successful year
    • 26-year-old won four titles, including first major grand slam, the U.S. Open, in September
    • Croatian has had to wrestle back credibility following failed doping test in April 2013
    • Big server says his time out of the game has contributed to his fantastic year

    (CNN)He was barely a teenager, while on the other side of the net stood his country's most famous face.

    A towering figure who had won Wimbledon just one year earlier.
      Despite the pressure, budding tennis star Marin Cilic handled both his nerves and his racquet well enough to impress Goran Ivanisevic.
      "It was an extremely huge experience for me," Cilic, now 26, told CNN of his date with destiny in the Croatian capital Zagreb.
      "He had been my idol, like for most of the kids in Croatia. He'd just won Wimbledon and there I was -- a 14-year-old kid playing tennis with him.
      Behind the scenes at the O2
      Behind the scenes at the O2


        Behind the scenes at the O2


      Behind the scenes at the O2 02:28
      "It was a dream come true."
      It was an experience that also launched Cilic's career.
      Ivanisevic was so struck by the youngster's potential he recommended that his old coach, Bob Brett, oversee his development.
      The Australian duly did so and shortly after, Cilic served a more formal notice of his talents when winning the French Open boys' title in 2005 -- beating top seed Andy Murray in the semifinals.
      The pair would work together until May 2013, separating just weeks before the former would learn he had failed a doping test in April.
      That seismic news was broken to the big server in June, prompting Cilic to immediately quit the ongoing Wimbledon championships, albeit citing a knee injury as he did so.
      As he awaited the fallout for what he has always claimed was an innocent mistake -- saying he inadvertently ingested a banned substance while in France, as he didn't realize that his regular glucose tablets were manufactured differently there -- Cilic turned to his boyhood hero.
      "It was the obvious decision," he says.
      "Goran was around me and my team before, and he was a close friend. When I stopped with Bob, Goran and I talked about whether he could help me or not. He felt I could improve a lot."
      He was spot on.
      Despite previously stating he has three personalities -- 'Good Goran', 'Bad Goran' and 'Emergency Goran' for when things go wrong -- Ivanisevic's expertise has resulted in Cilic's most successful season.
      He has improved his protégé's serve and mental strength, and Cilic credits him with the sense of enjoyment he is largely having on court.
      Checkered Start
      Yet they came together at a time when Cilic's career was looking as checkered as Croatia's famous red-and-white flag.
      He was serving his nine-month doping ban, an act that often proves toxic for fans, media and sponsors, yet the duo were able to start to wrestle back credibility when the suspension was cut on appeal in October 2013.
      By then, Cilic's ranking had dropped from 12th to 47th.
      Exactly one year later, Cilic had achieved his highest ever rating -- number 8 -- and also had a grand slam success to look back on.
      In September, he beat Japan's Kei Nishikori to win the U.S. Open, a success made all the sweeter by not losing a single set in the final, semifinal -- when he trounced Roger Federer -- or the quarterfinal against Tomas Berdych.
      His combination with Ivanisevic has been alchemical at times.
      "Belief," the 6ft 6in right-hander replies simply to the question as to what is the biggest thing the colorful Croat has given his compatriot. .
      "I think I am capable of making it to the top and being able to win big events."
      By a quirk of serendipity, Cilic also feels the four months he was out of the game in 2013 contributed to his fantastic 2014, which delivered four titles -- double his previous best for any season.
      "Those four months were very tough, it was a difficult time but I learned a lot of things," explained the world no. 9.
      "I matured as a person and I became more specific with the priorities in my life and what I wanted to achieve in my career.
      "I feel I pushed myself much more this year and I was a little bit more motivated -- that always gives you a bit extra and when you are at the top of tennis, even 1% makes a big difference.
      "I feel that the things I did last year, where I was working and preparing for the season, helped me to achieve what I achieved this year.
      "When I started this season, I felt really good -- maybe the best ever."
      While his period in the wilderness helped recharge his batteries and contributed to his memorable year, the extent of his success may also have led to his only real blemish for 2014.
      Last week, Cilic made his debut at the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals but he struggled in London, losing all his matches in a challenging group involving eventual champion Novak Djokovic, Berdych and Stan Wawrinka.
      "It's a little bit disappointing to play like this. I was not expecting it," he said after winning just six games in his opening two matches.
      "But I feel a little bit tired, and the body feels a little bit tired on the court."
      Tears of Joy
      His fatigued body may receive a timely boost next week if a long-awaited parcel from New York pitches up in the post.
      It will revive memories of a month when he played the 'greatest tennis' of his life, even if he says he's watched a DVD of the Flushing Meadows final at least 10 times already.
      ""The replica trophy still hasn't come, believe it or not. It's still being made in New York so hopefully it will arrive next week," he said.
      "It's going to be at my apartment in Zagreb and I'm going to have to polish it -- every day!"
      His U.S. Open triumph made Cilic one of only three men outside the Big Four to have won a grand slam since 2005, with Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro and Switzerland's Wawrinka being the others.
      Like the man he befriended as a 14-year-old, Cilic's success has also turned him into a standout star in his homeland.
      "I didn't think it was going to mean that much but when I came back, I realized the extent of its effect on people," said the man nicknamed 'Chila' by his friends.
      "It was one of the best moments of Croatian sports ever but I didn't think it was going to change people's lives for that week or month -- because everybody I saw was extremely happy.
      "They were unbelievably proud and whoever I saw on the street was congratulating me. That was the satisfaction for me that I could -- with my job and this achievement -- make people so happy."
      On the day itself, even his boyhood idol shed a tear.