Interview with Ivan Ljubicic, Tennis Magazine, December 2005
Here's my translation of the interview Ivan gave during Berçy to French Tennis Magazine. On that day, Roddick has committed a huge mistake: he's thought I was dead...
By Yannick Cochennec, from Tennis Magazine, December 2005.
By the time the overexhausted caravan of the pro tour was taking its fall leave in Berçy, there was still one guy who had energy in reserve and who couldn't stop enjoying that year of 2005 which he could end up in glory, at the beginning of December, with a victory in DC in Bratislava, on the side of a certain Goran Ivanisevic.
After 2 tournaments won in a row (Metz and Vienna), and the 1st TMS final of his career in Madrid, in which he was leading 2 sets to love against Rafael Nadal, Ivan Ljubicic, aged 26, was still dreaming about a qualification for the Masters Cup in Shangai which the BNP Paribas Masters could still offer him like the cherry on his impressive cake.
Surprise of the year, the Croatian, while regretting his lack of great results in GSs, comes back for us over those past few months with this peacefulness and insight which characterize him. Without forgetting about his perfect education which turns him into one of the most respected and appreciated players among his peers. Sitting on a couch of the Players's Lounge in Berçy, here is Ivan Ljubicic, in the middle of a dream.
TM: Would you say that this year has turned into some dream for you?
IL: First, this season of exception hasn't started on the 1st day of January. It has begun with my wedding at the end of last year (smiles). After a very serious training period, I went to Doha to defend my points of last year's final, which was a good start. At the AO, I've lost against Baghdatis, and I've been criticized a lot about it, but I knew that player was worthy and he's shown afterwards his game level wasn't as average as some seemed to pretend it was at that time (smiles). Then there's been a semi in Milan and 3 finals in Marseille, Rotterdam and Dubaï. Then, DC 1st round against the USA in California during which happened what happened with this historical win. And then in Indian Wells, I've played a really fantastic match against Roger. I've lost 7/6 7/6 but it's undoubtedly one of the best matches of my life. He even said he had to play at his best on that day to beat me, which was a very nice way of paying his tribute to me. In Miami, I've lost against Nadal after having had a break ahead in the last set. And then my shoulder and my back have started to cause me some trouble. And those pains haven't left me alone until summer, wasting RG and Wimbledon. After Wimbledon, I've had a 2-week break for some medical exams. All has come back to order, finally. The DC QF against Romania, in July, has been very tough mentally because we had to win after that exploit in the US. The whole pressure was on us, and on me in particular, after Mario Ancic's defeat in the 1st match.I went through that stage before heading the US where I've lost to very good players like Taylor Dent, Fabrice Santoro and Richard Gasquet. When I came back to Europe, there's been that semi against Russia in DC where I've succeeded in winning my 2 singles and the doubles. Metz, Vienna and Madrid have been other big times for me. 2 titles and my 1st final in a TMS. And here I am in Berçy, seeded 8th at the ATP Champions Race with the chance of playing the Masters Cup in Shangai before that DC final in Bratislava. So yes, to answer your question, it's been a dream year. In listing all the things that have happened to me, there's no other word coming to my mind (smiles).
TM: Which were your expectations, your goals, at the beginning of the year?
IL: I had finished 21st at the end of 2004, which was the best ranking of my career. I had thus the legit desire of getting among the Top 20 for the 1st time. And I also wanted to have good results in TMS and GSs, which I have failed as, until Madrid, I hadn't reached the QFs of one of those events. The small tourneys have saved my season if I may say so (smiles). Actually, I never give myself goals from 1 year to the other. I usually have goals for the upcoming 2 or 3 months. But in spring it's true, I've started to dream about the Top 10 and a qualification for the Masters Cup even if I had lost hope after the USO.Being where I am today can't but surprise me. But the results are here to prove I haven't stolen my place, far from that! (smiles)
TM: But what were you lacking to reach the highest level? That explosion happens pretty late, at 26...
IL: My progress have always been slow in my career. All has always been progressive, evolving. And I think that this kind of maturation is positive because I handle things happening to me more easily at 26 than at 20. I've got that experience of life which helps me keep my feet on the ground, not fire up. I still have great things to accomplish, I'm sure of that. This is no end, but indeed a beginning.
TM: But those exceptional results are bound to come from a particular work?
IL: Yes. I've worked on my return, my 2nd seve and my forehand. But I remain convinced that the most important thing for anybody is to learn to know oneself. Yes, who am I? It's really the best question that one can ask oneself. Today, I feel like I perfectly know myself, mentally as well as physically. I know how I'm gonna react, I know the limits that should never be overstepped. Before, I used to train for 4 hours. Now, I know that 1 hour of high quality work is as efficient.
TM: You've worked very hard physically to reach your current level. Haven't you?
IL: Yes, I've invested a lot (smiles). I had a career which was satisfying in the sense that I had defeated all those great players like Sampras, Agassi, Federer, Safin. But I had only been able to win 1 tournament, in Lyon 2001. On a whole week, I used to stall at one point. I remember I won over Federer in the 2nd round in Basel in 2002, but after that, I had run out of energy and I totally broke down. That's the reason why, at the end of 2003, I've hired Salvador Sosa who is, for me, one of the best physical trainers. OK, he wasn't cheap (smiles), but I didn't shrink from the expense. In reaching the final in Doha during the 1st week of 2004, I've been rewarded. I had incredible vibes on the court.
TM: What have you worked on, specifically, with him from 2004 on?
IL: We absolutely didn't know each other. So we had to test a lot of things in order to estimate my situation. And then, we've moved on to to the more active phase. I've made a lot of jogging, of indoor cycling. In tennis, hitting the ball hard is one thing, running is another, and certainly not the least important.
TM: During all this particular year, is there a match in which you've surprised yourself?
IL: There's been a period during which I've managed things I never would have thought I'd do. When I've successively played Rotterdam, Dubaï and the DC 1st round against the US in Los Angeles. I've been able to eat up the switching conditions from indoor to outdoor, which is never easy, as well as the time difference as there are 12 hours delay between Dubaï and Los Angeles. I arrived in California on the Tuesday evening, I've trained on the Wednesday and Thursday. On the Friday, I've beaten Agassi, on the Saturday, I've outplayed the Bryans with Mario in doubles and on the Sunday, I've won my match over Roddick. Those 3 days have a special place in my player's life.
TM: Under those circumstances of carrying on matches, physical conditioning is one thing. Mental is another. Have you worked on that too?
IL: Yes. When I was younger. I've worked on my breath, I've practised visualization, I've learned relaxing technics. I've always tried to understand the root of every thing. Feeling tense before a match, what does it mean? Feeling one's legs weakening at an important time, how to remedy for that?
TM: You've said your wedding had been the starting point of this year full of success. What has such a decision brought to your tennis?
IL: First, we'd been living together for long. Thus it was a logical decision (smiles). The ceremony has taken place in Monte Carlo, where we had invited 25 persons among our relatives. Getting married has acted like some kind of deliverance, of fulfillment which was bound to change my life. It was another dream coming true.
TM: Would you say, today, that given your new status, you could finally be the winner of a GS?
IL: I can't say so because of my past results in those tournaments. Being 26, I have never reached the 4th round there. So, before I can say I'm a potential winner, there are some stages I have to go through. From the moment I'm gonna reach the QFs, maybe I'll have the right to be more ambitious.
TM: How do you explain this lack of results in those events?
IL: Before, my physical condition didn't allow me to feel ok concerning the challenge of 5 setters. I have no explanation for the 2 or 3 recent seasons though. This year, there have been injuries for RG and Wimbledon. Maybe if I had defeated Gasquet at the USO, I'd have had a chance to make the semis...but I can feel it's coming up, it's close.
TM: In which GS do you think your chances are the highest?
IL: On the paper, RG is the challenge that seems the most difficult. But just have a look at Verkerk who's built like me and plays like me. He's been able to reach the final. Wimbledon definitely remains particular because of grass on which I don't feel at ease. At the AO and USO, my weapons seem to be better.
TM: When we look at you when you play, you seem to give off self confidence and peace of mind. Are you that quiet inside?
IL: Absolutely. I've always been a quiet person. By the way, if you want me to choose between a room service and a night at a discotheque, I pick the room service (laughs). After a loss, I always try to keep my feet on the ground, even if I happen to feel much disappointed. It's up to me to draw the consequences and to work on them. Look at my defeat in the final of Madrid. Losing the match after a tiebreak in the 5th set to Nadal after being 2/0 in the last set, I could have felt devastated. But there was no reason to be so negative. I had been lucky to live a great week and unlucky to fall on a great champion.There's far worse in life, isn't it?
TM: Let's talk, of course, about this DC final which will take place between Slovakia and Croatia at the beginning of December. How do you see this tie which could be your consecration? What are the strong and the weak points of that Slovak team?
IL: I heard things weren't great for them lately. Karol Beck got injured last week in St Petersburg and Dominik Hrbaty is far from his best level. We stand a chance, a nice chance, that's true (smiles). Though we can't be seen as clear faves as the tie will take place in Slovakia. In Croatia, we would have been far more favourite but here, our advantage seems slimmer on the paper.
TM: On the road to this final, there's of course this 1st round against the US we've already talked about. Did you think you could defeat such a strong team with Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi and the Bryan bros in front of their fellows?
IL: I knew I could beat Agassi on the 1st day. I had closely watched him play a few days before in Dubaï and I had noticed some chinks in his armour (smiles). With Ancic, we had already defeated the Bryans. So yes, it was possible, even more so that Agassi had confided in me during the days previous to the tie. He had told me he wasn't satisfied with the balls neither with the surface, that they had been chosen for Roddick and that he hadn't been consulted about it, whereas it was his return to DC after being out of it for 5 years. Thus, I've beaten him, we've won the doubles and I've defeated Roddick after he committed a bad mistake: when he thought he had won when he came back to 2 sets all. He's thought I was dead. He's loosened his serve at the beginning of the last set and that has cost him the match. To tell you the truth, I have felt it on the very 1st point of the last set. Instead of serving a 1st ball at 220-225 km/h as he did some minutes before, he went down to 180, as if it was enough to beat me. And then, he's cumulated some very nasty points. It was even surprising to see that.
TM: Andre Agassi has been very « classy » in the defeat.
IL: After our victory, he came to our locker to congratulate us and to tell us to cherish that moment because it was huge but fleeting. I've never been close to him, but Andre's always addressed me with respect. That respect, it doesn't show from everybody.
TM: Once the US being out, have you told yourself, straight, that you had a chance to win that DC 2005?
IL: When we watched the draw, we knew we had a chance to reach the final, but Russia with Marat Safin seemed to be such a hard obstacle to overcome. Our chance has been to see Marat withdrawing because of his knee injury.
TM: What makes the strength of that Croatian team?
IL: The mood in the team is perfect. There's no ego trouble. For instance, we never talk money with the Croatian Federation. Everyone is happy to play. It's true that things are easier because we always know who's gonna play (smiles): me and Mario. With Goran included in the group for this final, the mood's gonna be even more special.
TM: Is there any leader in that group?
IL: Niki Pilic, the Captain, is the one who's driving the team. His experience is respected by all thanks to all he's proven althrough his life. With him, on the bench, I never talk technics or tactics because I know what I got to do. He's there, encouraging me...With Mario, his work's different, more subtle because he's young.
TM: Ancic is said to be pretty nervous and that it's the main reason why he hasn't got a wide palmares yet, though he's, it's true, only 21...
IL: It's someone who'll never admit he's nervous whereas it's more than obvious when you watch him play under certain circumstances. From the moment he doesn't admit that weakness, he can't try to erase it. That's his current problem. But he's very young. He's 21 and has already been semi-finalist in Wimbledon. Everyone was expecting him to progress like Roddick did. Personally, I think we'll have to be more patient, a bit like for me...I've tried to advice him at the beginning. But I've felt he wanted to learn on his own, especially in making his own mistakes. And I understand him. He follows his track and that's good.
TM: You said it, Goran Ivanisevic, freshly retired from the tour, comes into the team as 4th man for this final. What do you think of this idea, which could sound surprising?
IL: That's a wonderful idea because he's still a great player. He's playing a lot on the Senior Tour. He's not welcomed on charity motives but for his good favours for the country (smiles). We know that in case we get injured, he can replace Mario or me, especially in doubles. We all talked this over together and he wanted to join us only if he thought he had the level to deserve his place. Actually, the idea has germinated in some Croatian journalists' minds and it made its way.
TM: It's said that your relationship with him hasn't always been as simple. Is it true?
IL: We've never had any problems but it's true we've had discussions. We weren't agreeing on everything and mostly on a former chairman of the Croatian Federation. Personally I think that this man's been our best president, but Goran, who didn't get along with him, has wanted (and succeeded) to kick him out. I've ended up in the middle of that story and that's a situation I really haven't appreciated. Today, there's absolutely no problem between us. You want a proof? He calls me at least 5 times a week (smiles).
TM: Does he follow your matches?
IL: All of them (laughs). He told me he had registered to a bunch of satellite services in order to see every tournament. We talk about my game, my life on the tour, what's happening in Croatia, about everything.
TM: Where were you when he won that final against Patrick Rafter in Wimbledon 2001?
IL: I was playing my 1st round in Gstaad and guess who I had defeated on that day? Roger Federer! 6/2 6/1 (laughs). Actually I couldn't watch this final because I was too nervous (smiles). At the end of the match, I even cried. Nobody believed anymore in his chances of winning Wimbledon after 3 defeats in final. And he wins, being ranked 125th, with a WC. It was the scenario of some bad American movie (laughs).
TM: What does Goran represent in Croatia?
IL: Every bird in Croatia knows who Goran Ivanisevic is (smiles). He's an icon, a star like a country rarely has.
TM: The Croatian crowd is very passionate. If you had to describe the Croatian soul...
IL: We're particular people. Especially in sport. In all sports we're very strong whereas we're such a small country. Getting out of this war we've known 10 years ago has made us proud. That's why an Olympic medal has so much importance to our eyes. Winning bronze in Athens with Mario has been one of the peaks in my career. Apart from that, that's a country which is developing fast, mostly in tourism even if we are lacking some high standard hotel industry. Croatians who just love their country will have to share it with the whole world because of its beauties (smiles). Because Croatia is your paradise if you own a boat.
TM: An Italian man has been, and still is, playing an important role in your life, that's your coach, Riccardo Piatti. Could you tell us about him...
IL: He's a bit like my 2nd father. I've grown up on his side in conditions that weren't easy at first. He's taught me to become a better player, but also a better person. As long as I'll play tennis as a pro, he's gonna remain my coach.
TM: You've been one of the men of the year 2005. But 2 other players are above you: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. First Federer. What do you think about his overall domination?
IL: I think it's gonna last. There are a bunch of guys who want to beat him but few are successful. 3 in 2005! What's totally incredible is the pressure on Roger's shoulders though he's careless about it with such a striking ease. Against him, there's no tactic possible. And by the way, if there was one, that would be known (smiles). The only thing that you have to do is to focus on your game and pray that he's on a bad day.
TM: He's « giving » a lot to his sport in being very present for the medias, the sponsors...
IL: That's right. He gets a lot from his sport, but he gives back a part of what it brings him. Federer, he's a great champion, but he's also a great man. If all guys of his level were acting his way, tennis would surely be more popular than today.
IL: A phenomenon, so physical. Will he be able to practise as such from one year to the other? That's difficult to believe. I think he's bound to adapt his game to be able to win points more easily from the baseline. And his serve needs to get stronger. But he's young and has all the time before him to think about it.
TM: French tennis is lucky to have 2 young champions that you've recently played: Richard Gasquet and Gaël Monfils. Which of the 2 impresses you the most?
IL: Speaking about tennis, Richard's the one who has the more talent. But on a professional point of view, I'd say that Gaël is more mature, more mastering his subject. It's very clear that Richard still needs to find his balance, which is normal for a young guy. One thing's sure: both will soon be among the best.
TM: You'd been pretty stern about Richard after your defeat against him at the USO, especially when you said that he had behaved on the court like a « spoilt child »...
IL: At the beginning of the match he was on the edge of crying because his elbow seemed to really be aching. He's behaved like the child he still is. He needs to grow up. I don't contest the fact that he was injured, but I've always considered that what counts on a court, is the respect that you can show to your opponent. That's a gentlemen sport. And many young players seem to often forget about it.
Best of LUCK to ALL my Faves in 2015