Clear focus, judicious schedule part of Ljubicic's plan to resurrect career
Ivan Ljubicic finds himself in unfamiliar territory these days.
No stranger to the elite Masters Cup in recent seasons, Ljubicic -- who, like several of his younger peers, grew up in the former Yugoslavia and honed his tennis game elsewhere when war broke out -- sits at his lowest ranking in four years and may slide further if he doesn't go deep at this week's Zagreb Indoors, one of two top-tier events in the country he calls home, Croatia.
Less than 24 months after reaching a career-high ranking of No. 3, the bareheaded and huge-serving Ljubicic is down to 25th. He began the new season with a semifinal showing in Doha, was knocked out by improving Dutchman Robin Haase in the opening round of the Australian Open, claimed a challenger in South Africa, then lost in the first round at Rotterdam to Czech enigma Tomas Berdych.
"I'd like to come back to the top 10,'' said Ljubicic, who turns 29 in a few weeks. "Of course, when you're No. 3, 5, 6 in the world and you drop back to 20, it looks really weak. But I'm really looking forward to seeing how good I can be again. I'm full of motivation.''
Fit for most of his pro career, Ljubicic was hampered by health problems in the second half of 2007. A run-in with kidney stones meant he couldn't make his Davis Cup farewell against Great Britain on the hallowed turf at Wimbledon in September, with a knee problem also taking its toll.
Probably as a result, he went a mediocre 4-4 during the European indoor season, when he usually piles up wins -- and aces. Five of his eight career titles have come indoors, and no one registered more victories with the roof closed than Ljubicic in 2005 and 2006.
"I was also a bit tired at the end of the season because the last three or four seasons were all one after another without really any break, so I think it just came together at the end of last year,'' he said. "The last three or four seasons I was playing between 24-27 tournaments a year.''
He wasn't fatigued enough to take his usual extended vacation in the offseason, but he still plans to reduce his workload to between 19 and 21 tournaments in 2008.
"I'm trying to really focus on quality, not quantity,'' he said.
Ivan Ljubicic is at the juncture of his career where he needs to cut back on the number of events he plays in.
No longer representing Croatia in the Davis Cup -- he went a sizzling 11-1 three years ago to lead his young nation to a maiden title -- the emphasis is on the Olympics (he and Mario Ancic took bronze in doubles in Athens) and predictably, Grand Slams.
Despite some prolific years, Ljubicic has reached a solitary Slam semifinal (at the French Open, perhaps surprisingly, in 2006). He has advanced past the third round twice in 34 attempts. In Masters Series finals, he's 0-for-3.
Longtime coach Riccardo Piatti, always a picture of calm in the stands, says his pupil has some unfinished business. They teamed up in 1997.
"He's physically strong, and if he has good motivation, what I would expect is that he does well in one big tournament,'' said the Italian, adding that some subtle adjustments made to Ljubicic's Head racket would help matters. "We had some goals, to win a tournament, make the Masters, win the Davis Cup, and he won a medal at the Olympics. One goal was to play very well in a Grand Slam. He made one semi, but for me it's not enough.''
"I have some points to defend in [Masters Series tournaments] Indian Wells and Miami," Ljubicic said, "but after that, not really much -- so everything I'm going to do after that is a plus, no pressure at all."
Unsurprisingly, the serve numbers play a key role. He won 79 percent of points on his first delivery in both 2006 and 2007, putting him first and third on tour, respectively. Heading into Zagreb, the number stood at 75 percent, a small, perhaps significant difference. He was outside the top 100 in return games captured.
As Ljubicic pointed out when the stats were brought to his attention, the 2008 campaign is still in its infancy. However, Piatti acknowledged that Ljubicic needs to be more aggressive on return games. In a 6-4, 7-6 second-round win over 509th-ranked countryman Lovro Zovko on Wednesday, Ljubicic broke just once. He won 43 percent of points on Zovko's second serve, though he didn't drop a point on his own first serve in the entire second set.
"If you're talking about my serve, that's definitely the most important part of my game, and that has to work,'' said Ljubicic, who was beaten by Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis in last season's Zagreb final. "Many times it happened that when my serve was working, everything else just came together, and it was the other way around when I struggled with my serve.''
Despite the slight downturn, Ljubicic never thought of parting company with Piatti, who has worked with a slew of Italian players and newly crowned Australian Open champ Novak Djokovic. Piatti was Ljubicic's best man at his wedding four years ago and is noted for building strong relationships with his players. Russian pro Igor Kunitsyn even used to cook with Piatti's mom at her apartment.
"He knows me the best,'' Ljubicic said. "He knows a lot about my game. I feel it would be stupid to change the coach now and lose time to someone who has to learn about me and the way I like things, and the things I need on court. We have a real close relationship, not only tennis-wise.''
Joining the ATP or WTA circuit is something akin to embarking on an endless world tour. Rolandgarros.com asked some of tennis’s major stars for an insight into their life as a perennial sporting backpacker. We begin our series of behind-the-scenes interviews with Croatian former world number 3 Ivan Ljubicic.
Which is the most relaxing city on tour?
Dubai. It’s a great place to go on holiday. It has a very relaxed atmosphere so it’s a real pleasure to play a tournament there. Another cool place is Umag in Croatia. The tournament is held in the summer, right next to the sea, and the matches start at 5pm, which gives you plenty of time to go to the beach and recharge your batteries.
Which cities have the worst traffic jams?
The big three: New York, London and Paris. If I had to pick one out of the three I’d say London because the streets are narrower.
In which city would you most like to buy a house?
New York and Paris. There’s nowhere in the world like Manhattan, and Paris has a certain charm that is unlike any other.
Name an amazing place you have never visited.
The Great Wall of China, the Maldives and Notre Dame in Paris.
Where are the best beaches?
In the Maldives and the Croatian islands in summer. There are 1085 Croatian islands in total, but only 60 are inhabited, the rest are all wild. If you have the chance to go there by boat, you’re totally alone: it’s incredible. I highly recommend taking a cruise around Croatia. It’s really wonderful.
Where is your favourite restaurant?
There’s a great Indian restaurant in Dubai, but I can’t remember the name. Otherwise I’d say Serafina in New York and the Nippon, again in New York. The owner loves tennis and always gives us special discounts so that loads of players go there [laughs]! He’s a really great guy and always comes to support me in the US Open.
What is the worst thing about travelling?
Packing, but the worst thing is airport security. It takes you an hour from the moment you arrive to actually board the plane. The USA is the worst. I hate it, especially when you have to do it two or three times a week.
Which is the friendliest country to visit?
Australia, by far. Australians are fantastic.
Who are your travelling companions?
My son is only seven months old, so he can’t really come with me. I try to take my family with me as much as possible, but my coach always travels with me and my fitness trainer comes 80% of the time too.
Tell us one thing you would change about the circuit.
The schedule, so that we waste less time flying. It would be better if we could play all the tournaments on each continent in one go.
Where can you find the most enthusiastic fans?
In Melbourne. There are lots of really enthusiastic supporters from many countries, including Croatia.
Where are the most knowledgeable spectators?
In Paris. Here, if you show negative feelings, like throwing your racquet down, the spectators whistle at you. I think they know more about tennis, so they can tell when something happens on the court.
Which country has the prettiest girls?
Croatia, Poland, Czech Republic and Serbia.
Which is the best organised tournament?
Melbourne. But it’s easier for them because the city is a lot smaller than the other Grand Slam cities, so the stadium is right in the city centre, giving it a great atmosphere.
Who is your best friend on the circuit?
Thomas Johansson. We live in the same building in Monte Carlo so we’re very close.
Who is the best umpire?
Mohamed Lahyani. You either love him or you hate him.
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.”
Too bad, but I think that there are actually cameras on every court ( casue court no. 7 have cameras and so... ) so there is a hope that some livestream link will be there. But also, too bad he wont be on HRT2