Ljubicic Turns A New Page
by James Buddell
After winning his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title, 31-year-old Ivan Ljubicic is focused on qualifying for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.
Highly respected as a consummate professional on and off the court, Ivan Ljubicic’s run to the BNP Paribas Open in March was widely toasted as a triumph for veterans of the ATP World Tour. It also added a new chapter to an extraordinary life.
He appeared to have supped generously from the fountain of youth when, two days after his 31st birthday, the exquisitely talented Ivan Ljubicic became the oldest first-time winner of an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title at Indian Wells.
Only 24 hours before his historic triumph, having dispatched Rafael Nadal with a performance of ingenuity and instinct, he had confessed that “it would mean the world to me [to win the title].”
After the final, when he beat Andy Roddick in two tie-break sets, he recounted with pride how over the course of his career he had reached a career-high No. 3 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings, how he’d captured a bronze medal with Mario Ancic at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and won 11 of 12 rubbers to lead Croatia to the 2005 Davis Cup.
Conquered in three previous ATP World Tour Masters 1000 finals, you then realised his triumph, of maturity and composure, would be something he would always remember and cherish. “It was fantastic to have that success at 31,” says Ljubicic, two months on, at his home in Monte-Carlo. “I really enjoyed the tournament from the first round to the final.”
Of course, it was a world away from the day he arrived at a tennis club in Moncalieri – a province of Turin, Italy – with holes in the soles of his shoes as a refuge, seeking comfort and a normal life away from the war zone, control points, guns and barbed wire he was forced to leave in May 1992.
Italian officials opened the door for promising Croatian players and it was as a 13 year old that his education as a tennis player and as a person blossomed. It was also at Moncalieri that he met Riccardo Piatti, who, at the time, was training Omar Camporese, Cristiano Caratti and Renzo Furlan.
“Because of my circumstances at that stage I was spending 5-6 hours per day on court, just trying to improve and learning from watching those players train,” says Ljubicic. “I wasn’t even thinking of working with him.”
Piatti recalls, “Ivan was in a group of younger kids and I saw him playing a couple of times. He was playing in the team matches, always winning his singles and doubles. At the time I couldn’t follow him, but I saw him again in Australia when he was 17 years old and he was very good.”
Under Piatti’s guidance, Ljubicic gained residency in Monaco aged 18 and started to take control of his life, both economically and personally.
“Riccardo’s way of working has always been about getting you into a position to make decisions for yourself, as a person and professionally in your tennis career,” admits Ljubicic, who has been coached by Piatti since 1997. “He has done it with many other players down the years.”
Piatti confirms, “I had the chance to be very close to him, so I could help him and advise him, but he always made decisions by himself.
“I say so because now I see young players that have too many people around them that want to solve all their problems and by doing so the kids don’t know how to decide off the court. It then becomes difficult to do it inside the court.”
Ljubicic has never had a big entourage. He came up as part of a talented generation of Croatian players that included Ivica Ancic, Ivo Karlovic and Zeljko Krajan, and has never let his success go to his head.
“He is a very trustable, very mature man, and he knows how to make decisions outside the tennis court,” says Piatti. “That’s why it’s easy for him to make decisions on the tennis court. The thing I like about him is that, since he has won a lot and reached a great ranking, a lot of people have gotten to know him and respect him first as a person and then as a player.”
Mario Ancic, a long-time friend who first met Ljubicic aged 12, admits the influence Ljubicic has had on him.
“Ivan has an unbelievable sense of humour and is somebody who has always been so professional,” says the former Wimbledon semi-finalist. “He has always tried to learn and figure out how to improve new aspects of his game. It has rubbed off on me.”
Marin Cilic, the current Croatian No. 1, has also been inspired.
“He was very helpful, always trying to advise me in right way [when I started my career],” said Cilic, who first got invited by Ljubicic to join Croatia's Davis Cup team in 2006. “And most important of all, his work ethic, dedication to tennis and ability to win were things I saw from him straight away. I was happy that I could’ve learned such lessons from such a great person.”
A family man, funny, with an ironic sense of humour, and very smart, he cherishes the time he spends with his wife, Aida, and their 18-month-old son, Leonardo.
“He is a very quiet person and he thinks a lot,” confirms Piatti. “He never stops thinking and he lives goal-by-goal and he keeps giving himself goals to reach. He is good-hearted and generous and he often takes care of others, because he remembers where he came from.”
Ancic adds, “He is a simple guy and someone well away from ‘Ivan the Terrible’, the nickname press gave him early on in his career.”
“You can talk with him about any subject,” says Cilic, “he knows many different things, and it’s never boring with him.”
Away from the court, Ljubicic also devotes his time as an Ambassador for Special Olympics in Monaco, for which he received the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Of The Year Award in 2007, and supports children’s charities in Croatia.
“I help children in Croatia to overcome injuries and gain treatment for their conditions. I’d like to start my own foundation but I don’t have a lot of time to do so right now.”
For seven years from 2002 he served on the ATP Player Council, was elected its Vice President from 2004-2006 and President from 2006-2008, before becoming the first active player to serve on the ATP Board – as its European player representative – in August 2008.
His tenure on the ATP Board, during a period of major changes, was short-lived, yet Ljubicic admits, “My political years at the ATP were beneficial and I learnt a lot. We achieved a lot, but it would be great to make this global sport even bigger.
“It would be good to be involved again at the end of my career, but when I took the difficult decision to retire from Davis Cup duties [at the end of 2007] and in my role on the ATP Board [in January 2009] it was correct.
“I would have loved to do everything I was doing, but I have a family and I need to prioritise at this stage of my career.”
Once he had chosen to leave the boardroom behind and concentrate on tennis again, Ljubicic was revived.
He broke back into the Top 30 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings in October 2009. His serve remains one of the most fluid on the tour and it was pinpoint accurate during his run in Indian Wells, which enabled him to identify a new goal to work towards.
“I want to stay healthy and try to qualify for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London this year,” says Ljubicic, who qualified for the prestigious finale at Shanghai in 2005 and 2006. “I realise I’ll be one of the last to qualify in the final week of the year, but for me to pick up points and play as many matches as I can is really important to me.”
Contesting his 13th season as a pro, Ljubicic confesses, “My match preparation hasn’t changed at all over the years, but the way I train and get fit for each season or different surfaces has.
“In your early 20s you have to play a lot to gain consistency and improve. But now I play maybe one hour or less per day and I spend 5-6 hours working on my fitness and staying in shape. At 30 or 31, you have to work much harder.”
Cilic, who believes a Top 15 ranking is “where Ljubicic belongs”, sincerely hopes “that he is going to be injury-free the rest of his career”.
Piatti, his long-time confidant and coach, says Ljubicic’s motivation has to remain very high in order to continue to play the sport, but “outside the court he also has to work a lot physically, to take time to recover, to eat well and to rest”.
Ancic believes, “He still has a good chance to win every match he plays and he remains a threat on every surface and at the Grand Slams. He is still playing well and beating top players, so he has no reason to be questioned about retirement yet. He’s too good to be asked that.”