Bring it on: Ivan lives for the Federer challenge
While American Andy Roddick complains about competing in the Roger Federer era, Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia said playing against the Swiss wizard on the tour was his biggest joy.
"Maybe I could win more championships and prize money if Federer was not in the same age with me, but you have to know that there is something money can not buy - that's playing against Federer," said the World No 3.
"He is the best man in the game, on and off the court, and he has a great personality. I enjoy so much having opportunities to compete against him."
Despite his pure respect, Ljubicic's head-to-head experience against Federer is far from pleasant. The two started their rivalry as soon as they turned pro in 1998 and the Swiss leads the showdown 10-3. The 27-year-old Croat has never taken a singles win from Federer since 2003 and lost five times last season. The defeats included three finals, and there have been two losses so far this year, both in the Masters Series.
But Ljubicic doesn't see the results humiliating.
"Disappointed? Of course not," he said. "I am so proud to have him around. It is very pity that I am not able to play with Pete Sampras, but it's OK, I can see Federer on the tour. I could tell my grandson someday that I have competed against the greatest player on the planet."
The Croat escaped war-torn Bosnia in 1992 at age 13 and began his journey to the top of the sport in Italian tennis camps.
After his first top-10 finish last year, he started 2006 in blistering form with a career-best start of 49 wins and 14 losses before arriving at the US Open this month.
He reached a career-best No 3 in the ATP rankings, highlighted by two ATP titles in Chennai in January and Zagreb in February.
He led the Croatia team to their first-ever Davis Cup title last year, defeating the Slovak Republic 3-2 and helped his country clinch the ARAG ATP World Team Championship title.
His 11-1 Davis Cup record is the best performance since John McEnroe's 12-0 in 1982 for the United States.
Joining him in the winning team is world No 10 Mario Ancic, who is at the China Open this week. It is the first time two Croats have made it into the top 10 rankings at the same time and tennis experts are relentless in comparing the current Croatia team to the US in mid-1990s.
Team USA claimed the Davis Cup over Russia in 1995, when four of its players, Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and American-Chinese Michael Chang took up the top positions.
"I think there is no comparison between us, you know, we are just a country with four and half million people," Ljubicic said. "I am still very happy every time I hear the comparison. It's an honour to be mentioned with the those American players."
The 1.93-metre big-server said now his goal was to take on Federer and Spaniard Rafael Nadal in the new season. "First, I have to win as many games as possible to secure my No 3 rankings at the end of season, just like I've done last year," he said, referring to his sparkling show last October and November, when he entered two Masters Series finals in Madrid and Paris before having a semi-final finish at the Shanghai Masters Cup.
"I collected a lot of points this season on clay, so I hope to play better on different surfaces next year and try to make some troubles for Federer and Nadal."