Re: Grass Season
Mr Fix-It revels in elder statesman’s role
Ivan Ljubicic is a good man to know. He is the president of the ATP Player Council, he mentors a crop of Croatian players and fields calls every week from parents desperate for advice about their children’s careers.
After reaching the third round of the Artois Championships on Tuesday, the Croat had the luxury of a rest day yesterday and, having been granted unique behind-the-scenes access at Queen’s Club, West London, I spent the day with him as he practised, refuelled and fulfilled sponsorship requirements.
The courtesy car I was travelling in was 15 minutes late in fetching the world No 12 from his Chelsea hotel, having been stuck in traffic, but he waved away the delay and chatted nonstop during the drive to the club. As we walked through the grounds, he had various tennis balls, tickets and programmes shoved in front of him and he signed every one. He greeted tournament officials by their first names, was slapped on the back by any player we passed and was courteous to everyone, from ballgirls to security guards.
He showed me around the players’ lounge, where tennis bags clogged up the aisles and Virtua Tennis was being played on the PS3. Janko Tipsarevic, of Serbia, was playing as Sébastien Grosjean, but “players generally like to play as themselves”, Ljubicic said. He introduced me to staff members, including Fraser Russell, or “Fix-it Fraser”, the players’ concierge, who sorts out anything from flights to restaurant bookings to cinema tickets.
Ljubicic is something of a Mr Fix-It himself. His role on the council dictates that he is often approached by players with something on their mind. Whether it is an idea about the calendar, the Davis Cup, or someone looking for advice, the Croat is viewed as an elder statesman on the tour, and not just because of his lack of hair.
“All the players feel that they have to be represented by someone,” Ljubicic, 28, said. “I talk to them, find out what they are thinking and try to get something done. It’s important because some players have great ideas and my role is to get those ideas into the board meeting and get something done. The players tell me that this is the first time they feel like they can say something and are heard, which, obviously, I’m glad about.”
Not only is Ljubicic the voice of the ATP Tour, he is also a point of contact for aspiring players in Croatia. “I have many phone calls from the parents of young players,” he said. “They say ‘my guy is great, my girl is fantastic’ and I say ‘I believe you’, but what can I do?”
Ljubicic can empathise with their plight. His family was forced to flee war-torn Bosnia in 1992 and sought refuge in Croatia. His father, Marko, stayed behind and had no contact with his son for six months. Already a talented tennis player, Ljubicic was offered a scholarship by a club in Turin, Italy.
“It was a difficult period as I had always been with my parents,” he said. “But after a while you understand and you adjust to this new life. I had no choice and when you only have one choice, life is easy.” Two players who have benefited from the input of Ljubicic are Ernests Gulbis and Marin Cilic, the 18-year-olds to whom Tim Henman has lost in his past two matches. Ljubicic is playing doubles with Gulbis throughout the grass-court season in exchange for guidance from Nikki Pilic, Gulbis’s coach, the former Davis Cup captain of Germany and Croatia.
Having hit 929 aces in 2006, more than anyone else, Ljubicic’s game should be suited to grass, but he has reached the third round of Wimbledon only once, in 2006. “People say if you have a big serve you are going to be good on grass, which is absolutely not true,” he said. “You have to move well, you have to return well, you have to understand the game and you have to be lucky with the draw.”
Ljubicic wants to stay in the sport when he retires – “tennis is my life, this is who I am,” he said – and you get the feeling that doors will fly open for the most popular man on the tour. Besides, he is owed a favour or two