Croatia’s Marin Cilic marked his return from a doping ban with a first-round victory at the Paris Masters on Monday and expressed his delight at being back on court.
His hard-fought three-set victory over Dutchman Igor Sijsling was the perfect tonic following a difficult time for the former Grand Slam semi-finalist.
Cilic, 25, ranked 47th in the world, tested positive for the stimulant nikethamide at the Munich Open in May and was banned for nine months by an independent tribunal last month.
However, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) reduced the ban to four months on Friday meaning the sanction expired one day later and allowed him to take his place in the tournament.
After dropping a tense opening set, Cilic bounced back to set up a matchup against world No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina with a 5-7, 6-1, 6-4 victory.
“I felt like a kid playing tennis for the first time,” said an exuberant Cilic, who reached the 2010 Australian Open last four, and the US Open quarter-finals in 2009 and last year. “And I would say the feeling was amazing just to be back on the court, to be competing, and I enjoyed every moment.”
The Croatian admitted it had been a nightmare.
“Yeah, I would definitely say it was the worst time of my life to experience this as a player,” he said. “I have been on the [ATP] Tour for six, seven years, and have been always really careful and really honest and fair as much as I could with all the other players, and then to be in that kind of situation where when I found out about the positive test, and then also the media started to write and it was extremely difficult situations where people were even calling me a doping player and a cheater.”
“I knew I didn’t cheat and the most important, I haven’t taken anybody’s prize money and I haven’t beat anybody in that tournament,” he added.
Also on Monday, in a program which featured only unseeded players, Spaniard Feliciano Lopez edged a fiercely contested match against Australian qualifier Bernard Tomic 6-4, 6-7 (4/7), 7-6 (7/1).
Lopez next meets Stanislas Wawrinka with the Swiss seventh seed looking to wrap up his first ever appearance at the ATP World Tour Finals in London with a good run this week.
Wawrinka is battling with compatriot Roger Federer, and French duo Jo-Wilfrid Tsonga and Richard Gasquet for the final tickets to the eight-man tournament in the English capital.
Elsewhere, on a disappointing day for French players Jeremy Chardy, Adrian Mannarino and Julien Benneteau were all eliminated.
Chardy, who began the season with a run to the Australian Open quarter-finals, was beaten 6-3, 6-4 by Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic, while Mannarino suffered a tough three-set defeat against Colombia’s Santiago Giraldo 6-3, 2-6, 6-4.
Benneteau ran into an in-form Kei Nishikori and won only six games during a 6-4, 6-2 defeat against the Japanese world No. 18.
Nishikori next plays French No. 1 Tsonga for a place in the round-of-16.
French woes continued even off court as Gael Monfils was forced to withdraw on the eve of his first match with in-form Canadian Vasek Pospisil after injuring his left wrist while practicing.
There was a French winner in the final match of the evening as 22-year-old qualifier Pierre-Hugues Herbert, ranked 189th in the world, upset compatriot Benoit Paire, ranked 26th in the world, winning 6-2, 6-2 to set up a dream second-round match with Novak Djokovic.