If you go to the ATP website and punch in Ivan Ljubicic’s name (remember him? Tall, bald, brutally frank dude – kind of the anti-Andre), you’ll notice something bizarre. You get a choice between two Ivan Ljubicics: one from Bosnia and one from Croatia. And yes, you can try this at home.
Bosnian Lubby [or Ivan Ljubicic (2) in the cold ATP parlance] has the distinction of being perhaps the only ATP player about whom most people know even less than they do about un-numbered Croatian Ivan Ljubicic. Of course, most of you reading this are sophisticated tennis fans (that is, when you’re not at each other’s throats about Roger Federer), so you know that, among other things, Croatian Ljubicic – henceforth, just plain Ivan - led Croatia to a historic Davis Cup victory in 2006, and not that long ago ranked no. 3 in the world.
You may also know that Ivan is currently barely inside the top 30, and that he went down to play a Challenger event in East London (South Africa) in early February. So I thought it would be interesting to track him down and ask: Dude, what’s up with that? Or something like that.
Ivan was nice enough to meet me in the player lounge here at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden after his upset of Tommy Robredo in a third-round match today. He was decked out in old-school white duds made by his new clothing sponsor, the Chinese outfit, Li-Ning (so far the only other pros wearing the line are Chinese girls), which enhanced his already disconcerting resemblance to the famous Mr. Clean of household cleaner fame.
Actually, Ivan is a few hundred times more charismatic in person than when he's wearing his game face during a televised match. He speaks English very well, surprisingly quickly, and he’s one of those people who looks you in the eye and takes you just as seriously as you take him. The expression that comes to mind is “stand-up guy.”
Ivan believes he’s turned the corner after suffering temporary burnout from playing too much in 2006 and 2007 (significantly, the overload began when he led Croatia to victory in the Davis Cup final of 2005). He hit his low-point in Madrid last fall, after his second-round loss to Stefan Koubek.
“After that match, I told my coach (Riccardo Piatti) that I’m done for the season. I just can’t play. After the first set, I was completely gone – mentally and physically fried. I was hitting the ball and the ball was coming back and I was thinking to go to the ball, to put the effort to run to it, but the running didn’t come. So after that, I didn’t even practice any more, I just played Bercy and Lyon and I didn’t want to do any tennis until I started to practice again a little in November
This was a particularly tough breakdown for Ljubicic, because he always banked on doing well during the fall indoor season. He had a bushel of points to defend last fall, which is why his ranking crashed so dramatically when he flamed out. Of course, when you chase ranking points and play 26, 27 tournaments a year, it’s bound to catch up with you. Ljubicic knows that he brought the crisis on himself by playing too much, but he denied that his primary motivation was financial – something of which he, and some other players (Nikolay Davydenko pops to mind) are often accused.
The way Ivan sees it, you chase the rankings to chase the seedings to chase away the prospect of playing a Roger Federer or Novak Djokivic in the third round of a tournament like this Pacific Life Open. Also, taking on a heavy tournament load takes off some pressure to perform at peak level each time you set foot on a court. And pressure is something that Croatian Ivan Ljubicic hasn't always handled well, especially at Grand Slam events. He’s only survived the third round on two occasions in 33 majors.
“I was always putting a lot of pressure on myself, but also feeling the pressure from others, especially when I was close to the top. Everything under the semifinals was bad – it’s really difficult to start off a Grand Slam with that idea, that if I don’t make semis, it’s bad. Now, nobody has high expectations, and I am really focused and enjoying the tennis much more.”
For months now, I’d also heard rumors that Ivan was struggling with his change of rackets (he abandoned his Babolat Pure Drive for the Head Extreme in January of 2007). This turns out to be true, or at least partially so. As Ivan likes to point out, he beat Andy Murray in the final of Doha in the first event he played with the Extreme, and that the new racket performed well in every way that could be quantified.
“My best shot is my serve. If my serve is working, I am not complaining. If my production of aces really went down or something, sure, there’s a problem. But one thing was that the racket was not helping me on clay, even though I never focused my effort on the clay-court season."
Luby Of course, In the pretzel-logic of tennis, that immediately and conclusively explains why Ivan’s best Grand Slam showing was a semi at Roland Garros. Anyway. . .feeling besieged on all sides after his first-round loss to qualifier Robin Haase at the Australian Open this year, and looking at a month before his next scheduled tournament (Rotterdam), Ivan called the people at Head’s Austria headquarters and factory, and invited himself to visit. He ended up spending 11 days there, testing rackets. Not off the shelf models, either. He tested rackets made daily, like fresh croissants, just for him.
“Most days, I played with three new rackets, so over that period Head made about 35 new rackets before I said, ‘Okay, this is it. This is the one I like.’ I have to thank them, a lot. They were ready and keen on doing something for me, and it was fantastic to go to the factory and actually watch the rackets being made.”
Ivan’s new stick has larger grommet holes, which give him a wider string pattern on his verticals (that is, there’s a string closer to the side of the racket head on either side). When he was satisfied with his new racket, he started looking for a place to use it and came across the East London Challenger. It takes courage for a tour player to go down to the boonies and expose himself to the scalp hunters, but the upside isn’t as negligible as we sometimes assume.
“It’s a good idea to get some matches under your belt, but it’s still important to win,” Ivan said. “You make 90 points, which is like the semis at a big (but sub-Masters) tournament. Here (at Indian Wells), I have just 75 at this moment (going into the fourth round), so 95 is not peanuts. But the best thing for me was that I was struggling in the Challenger, so winning it felt really good.”
Granted, Ivan and his new racket didn’t exactly set Rotterdam aflame (he lost in the first round, but to a quality opponent, Tomas Berdych). And in his next event, Ljubicic reached the Zagreb final (where he lost to unknown Sergiy Stakhovsky). It would be a reach to say that Ivan is within striking distance of that no. 3 ranking, he’s on the right track. Just as importantly, he feels like he’s in control of his career and – at long last – properly appreciated.
“This contract with Head is fantastic. It’s one of the first I really felt this is what I deserve. In the past, it was nothing. If I was making money, it was just because I was earning bonuses (for hitting certain ranking and result benchmarks). I felt Head really wanted to invest in me, and I knew they were a serious company.”
He feels the same way about Li-Ning, and proudly tells this story: “I said to them, guys, for me, good shoes is not good enough – it has to be great shoes. So they sent me to Belgium to one laboratory where they really measured my foot and did all kinds of testing until they could make perfect shoes for my body. It took them a month to make them.”
Note to the curious: this is something that Nike never did for Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi - nor, as far as I know, for Roger Federer. Ivan says he’s well rested, and that he’s been able to practice, not just play matches on the hunt for ranking points. He plans to cut back to 21 or 22 tournaments this year. The resentment he once felt at not getting his due, commercially, is evaporating. The future looks rosy, even if tomorrow does not.
“I feel the way I was feeling two, three years ago. I’m feeling like a top ten player again.” He ruefully added, “Tomorrow, of course, Roger. . . That’s a difficult task.”
It’s going to take great shoes, a custom-made racket – and a little more. Maybe he should call Bosnian Ivan,just to see if he has any interest in double-teaming tennis's main man.