"Don't cry, we'll always have Bratislava"
By Gordan Gabrovec in Zagreb, 06 Mar 2011
As a German television reporter was still talking about the great five-set victory that Cristopher Kas and Philipp Petzschner pulled off in the doubles, the lights in Dom Sportova were turned off. An announcer in the arena started to speak.
He was racing through a series of sentences like he was in a big hurry. Now and then I would recognize that he mentioned Wimbledon, Davis Cup and Olympics. As he was talking, line judges, ballboys and ballgirls gathered on the court like they would do for a trophy presentation at the end of a tournament. Then the moment came. The announcer raised his voice saying: "Ladies and gentlemen, Marioooo Anciiiiic!"
He was there, waiting to step on the court in his Croatian Davis Cup team white jacket that he wore with so much passion and pride. He started to walk behind the girl who carried a Croatian flag. It was his last victory lane. He walked slowly, like he used to do when he was preparing to serve in a crucial point of the match. This time he neither had racket nor balls in his hands. People clapped and Mario waved.
This didn't last long, not more than a minute, but it seemed like a decade. Many memories about the man in front of me came to my mind.
There he was, in the same hall 12 years ago. He played his first match in Davis Cup. Portuguese Joao Cunha-Silva beat him, but I was charmed with the game of the 15-year-old boy. A few months later he would win his first ITF Futures title, beating Ivo Karlovic in the final. That day "Super Mario" was born, long before he would beat Roger Federer in the first round of Wimbledon in 2002.
I remembered how he dismantled Tim Henman two years later in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, which was probably his best match ever. I remembered that hot summer night in Athens when we waited until 3am to see Mario and Ivan Ljubicic winning a bronze medal at the Olympics.
There he was, standing in that same white jacket that Ljubicic and he wore on a path to Davis Cup glory in 2005. They achieved a lot together and who knows what else that could have been Mario’s if he was able to stay healthy.
He was always a warrior. In a small circle of people he was known as ‘the young samurai’. So many times we saw him being down-and-out in the match before he would somehow find a way to victory. He never was a quitter until the end when his body betrayed his desire to keep playing.
No one should be forced to leave something that he loves so much. And Mario, oh, how he loves to play tennis. He didn't get a chance to play in a Wimbledon final or beat Andy Roddick, the only man out of today's Top 10 on the ATP rankings that he never beat, not even in junior tournaments.
As pictures on the big screen were showing the greatest moments of his career, sorrow started to kick in. This was one of those moments when we should celebrate and feel sad, when we should cry and smile at the same time.
I stopped for a moment and looked once more at the man in front of me. There he was a 26-year-old tennis star who could no longer play tennis. But he’s a rare player in today’s world with a future career path already planned: he received his law degree a few years back after studying while home recovering from mononucleosis.
And then it came to me. This is not a time to cry. Why would we? We'll always have a Davis Cup victory over Slovak Republic in Bratislava to remember.