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Ivan Dodig: Determined To Succeed

DEUCE Extra - Australian Open 2012

Dodig© PBZ Zagreb Indoors / Other Photos: Getty ImagesIvan Dodig won his first ATP World Tour title at Zagreb in February 2011.

Ivan Dodig became a professional tennis player through sheer hard work. Now, he is determined to stay in the Top 50 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings.

The crowd inside the Dom Sportava in Zagreb are on their feet, wild with excitement as Croat Ivan Dodig is one point away from winning his first ATP World Tour title, the PBZ Zagreb Open. Dodig chooses the two balls he will serve with and steps up to the baseline. No one knows for sure what thoughts must be racing through the 26 year old's mind at this moment. But it is safe to say, for Dodig, it must seem like a very long way from when he was forced to sleep in bus stations, airports and in an old Opel car, while trying to scratch out a living on the lower rungs of the tennis tour.

Now Dodig locks in the spot he will serve to, begins his motion and blasts an ace out wide past Michael Berrer's outstretched forehand. With a look of disbelief and joy, Dodig turns his back to the net and raises his arms in triumph as the crowd break into applause. Then, with all those emotions swirling inside of him, he hurls his racquet high up into the crowd. In the din of madness, amidst the celebrations, Dodig did not hear the chair umpire call "OUT".

"This is some special guy."

An overrule of the Croat's ace.

At first, Dodig pleads, then protests, and finally, realising that his case is useless, hangs his head on the net in despair. As if his life has not been hard enough, now Dodig has to try and compose himself and find a way to summon all his concentration once more. Not to mention try to get his racquet back.

Zagreb"I was in shock," remembers Dodig. "After the first match point I did not know how to react. I came to the net but there was no [Michael] Berrer, and I turned to the umpire and saw that he called out. Then I started thinking, 'where is my racquet? What should I do now?'"

"I was live streaming the match from Prague," says Dodig’s coach, Martin Stepanek. "He served a great serve out wide and I started jumping in my room. I was so happy for him. All the emotions of all that hard work. Then, there is silence and I saw the umpire signaling out. I could not believe it and I was thinking what is going to happen now? It might happen that he can lose it. I was shaking."

What happened next was a second serve, which Berrer returned and then struck a good approach, followed by a great half volley drop shot to save the match point.

DEUCE.

If Dodig's body language could communicate, it would be shouting extreme anxiety in high definition.

"If I won some matches, I would have a chance to play more tournaments."

Goran Ivanisevic was there as a commentator.

"I was there commentating for television," says Ivanisevic. "The way he [Dodig] played in Zagreb from the first to last match was incredible. He asked me for some tips on how he should play finals. He actually played everything that I told him. I was really surprised the way he was listening. You know, this is some special guy. The way he achieved everything by himself, with nobody really helping him, while he was struggling for a really long time is incredible."

What Ivanisevic is alluding to is what most players on the ATP World Tour have known about Dodig. The stories are the stuff of dreams. It is even rumoured that he once had to sleep under a bridge because he couldn't afford a hotel.

Dodig and Cilic watch Ljubicic in practise at Zagreb in February 2012."He never had money and what he accomplished is amazing, and I am giving him the biggest respect there is," says countryman Lovro Zovko. "I think that is where his big heart comes from on the court. He never quit on anything and every match he played he tried to play his best tennis. And it was not easy at all for him. Now, he is willing to help others because he knows how it is when you have to count every cent that you spend."

"I had a little bit of a tough time in juniors and Futures," recalls Dodig. "I had some financial situations after the war, but unfortunately, I did not get any support. I was fighting in some Futures to earn some money. It was very hard for me because I knew that if I lost there was small chance that I could go to the next tournament. If I won some matches, I would have a chance to play more tournaments. Sometimes it was good, sometimes [it was] not so good. I was taking care of every Euro. I had many tough situations in tournaments having to play without money and many times without anywhere to sleep."

Back to the Zagreb final.

Locked at deuce, with the match momentum suddenly shifting like a fault line erupting, Berrer looks like a death row inmate just granted a last minute pardon. What possesses Dodig to do what he does next is anybody's guess. But it was plainly obvious that Dodig was going to strike the first blow. A serve-volley catches Berrer off guard and Dodig wins the point. 

"He made a big step up, when he began travelling with Martin Stepanek."

Match point, again, for Dodig.

By all accounts, Dodig got his big break, at an academy ironically called, BreakPoint in Halle, Germany, where Viktor Troicki and Jarkko Nieminen train.

"I was around World No. 500 or so and I decided to go to Halle," says Dodig. "I knew it would be very tough, but there I got great support from the people. Since then many important moments in my life have happened.”

Jan de Witt directs the academy. And years of experience told him there was plenty of work to be done before Dodig was ready to have a breakthrough.

"I saw a great person and a great athlete with more will to work and succeed than most other players," recalls de Witt. "But his body wasn't ready to take the pressure of playing full-time and travelling. He was a strong man before he came to BreakPoint, but unbalanced. He had to get more flexible. While working on his fitness - especially his back - we used the time to improve his backhand to become a weapon and added the missing serve to his arsenal. In general, his serve was great when he came to us, but that one extra serve helped to make the others more effective. I saw him be a Top 100 player, with a shot to Top 50, if things went well. Then he made a big step up, when he began travelling with Martin Stepanek."

Dodig playing at Melbourne Park in January 2012."The thing is that he became more calm and more focused," states BreakPoint coach Stepanek, who would become Dodig's full-time tour coach. "He does not have to worry about not having someone with him on the tour and he has some financial security now. I believe in Ivan for many reasons, but mainly because he is a guy with an unbelievably big heart - one of the biggest fighters on the tour. And he is not afraid to play on the big courts with the best players. You could see in his eyes there is something in him."

Rafael Nadal must have seen that character trait of Dodig as well, when the two men squared off against each other in the second round of the Rogers Cup in Montreal last year. Dodig stood toe-to-toe with Nadal and emerged the victor 1-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(5).

Says Stepanek, "This year will be quite special for Ivan, as last year, at the age of 26, he made his biggest step entering deep in the Top 100 [in the South African Airways ATP Rankings]. As many tennis players know, the second year is the most tricky as all the players know your game already, with this some pressure comes as well. To be ready for this, Ivan needs to be physically and mentally better prepared than last year. Our biggest focus will be on the physical part, to be fit and ready to compete the whole season, especially the second part of the season."

"I must keep fighting even harder, if I want to become a good tennis player..."

"He likes being on the tour," says Ivanisevic. "And he is going to make his opponent miserable because he will have to work for every point. He appreciates everything about the tour. For sure, there are some things that he can improve. Sometimes he tries too much. But the main thing is that he listens and he is always asking for advice. He likes to learn and he is going to learn even more."

"I learned in the Futures and Challengers that if you fight 100 per cent of the time you will always earn your chance," claims Dodig. "Now, I must keep fighting even harder, if I want to become a good tennis player and get my chance against the best players in the world."

DodigSpeaking of getting another chance, Dodig got his second match point versus Berrer in last year's Zagreb final. The two men rallied back and forth until Berrer approached the net. A backhand pass by Dodig down the line sealed the victory. And this time there was no overruling the ball out.

"I saw it on television and was extremely happy for him," says de Witt. "I don't know of many players that deserve this moment like Ivan.

Having the support from his childhood idol Ivanisevic was inspirational to Dodig.

"Goran supports us and he is really special for us," admits Dodig. "It is always a pleasure for us if he can be around. Goran gives us advice because he has had so many experiences."

De Witt believes, "Ivan Dodig is a very good role model for many young kids, who dream about becoming a star and have to live with hard times and many setbacks. Ivan is a guy who went down, but always stood back up."

They say that it is not whether you win or lose that counts, but how you play the game. If that much is true, then Dodig will always be a winner, because he gives the game everything he has in the tank on every single day. 

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