Marin Cilic and Andy Murray have walked the same path, it is just that the Scot has climbed higher. They meet today on the level playing field of No.1 Court with a shared experience of life.
Both left home to develop their talent, both won junior grand slams and both are quiet, almost shy away from the court. Murray recalled yesterday that Cilic was a fellow traveller on the junior circuit and the Croat defeated him in the semi-finals of the Junior French Open in 2005 en route to winning the tournament.
It was the first significant indication that Cilic could and would be a top 10 player. His path to Paris was unusual. Cilic was born and raised in Medjugorje, a town that became a place of pilgrimage after six children claimed to have witnessed apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in June 1981. His father, Zdenko, a successful businessman, endured a tough childhood and did not want his sons to suffer as well.
"My father was determined that my older brothers, Vinko, Goran, and I would get the opportunity to play sport, as he did not get any opportunities growing up," said Marin, the third of four boys. "The town had no tennis tradition prior to 1991, when the first tennis court was built. My friends and I were among the first to play on it."
War shattered the town but it ended in 1995, when Cilic was seven, allowing him to indulge in his aptitude for games. "Right from the beginning I had a talent for sport," he said in 2009. "I would often play football or handball with my brothers and friends in the nearby area, but it wasn't until my cousin Tanja visited Medjugorje from Germany in the summer at the age of seven that I started to play tennis.
"My first coach taught me the technique for tennis and I started to play three times a week. It wasn't too long until I started winning a lot of the local tournaments."
As Murray had to travel to Barcelona to find better coaching, Cilic had to head to Zagreb. Goran Ivanisevic, the former world No. 2 and 2001 Wimbledon champion, recalled: "They brought me Marin when he was 13 and a half to see what I thought. I practised with him a lot and gave him advice. He is a great guy and a great player."
Crucially, Ivanisevic took his protege to Bob Brett, the tennis coach, in the summer of 2004. The Australian coaches at San Remo tennis academy on the French-Italian border and is still Cilic's mentor.
Nicknamed Chila, the 23-year-old Croat has a quiet presence and found the exile from his parents and friends very difficult. He also discovered that the ATP Tour was a testing spot for a young player.
"I can't deny there weren't tough moments and weeks," he said. "I was fortunate that I was always with my coach and players of a similar age – such as Juan Martin del Potro, Ernests Gulbis and Robin Haase."
His rise to the very top has been interrupted by injury. He was ranked No. 9 in 2010 and has the capacity to reach such heights again. He underwent an operation on his knee earlier this year and won his first grass-court tournament at Queen's last month.
Cilic now faces a major test in front of a home crowd against the world No.4. He is undaunted. "I know how much it means to him, but also means a lot to me," he said. "I approach these challenges in a positive way and will try to deal with it in the best possible way. If I do things right, if I do what I'm planning to do in the match, I can win."
On a late summer's day in 2009, an unfancied Cilic played Murray in the last 16 of the US Open. The Croat won. The Scot has beaten Cilic on the five other occasions they have met but there is enough in the history of that steaming hot day in Flushing Meadows to inspire the underdog.