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Ivan Ljubicic: The Journey Continues

DEUCE Extra!

Ljubicic© Getty ImagesIvan Ljubicic made his curtain call at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters.

Ivan Ljubicic has called time on his playing career, but still feels a responsibility to the game. Richard Evans sits down with the elder statesman, who reflects on his journey and shares what’s next. 

With tears in his eyes, Ivan Ljubicic bid farewell to a remarkable playing career here at the Monte Carlo Country Club. His last appearance took the form of a first-round loss to compatriot Ivan Dodig, but it didn’t matter. It was all about what had gone before and now, what path he will take in the future.

The decision this highly intelligent and popular Croat will make in the next few weeks will not only determine his personal future but could have a considerable effect on the sport he has played with such style and dignity since arriving in Monaco as the protégée of the man who guided his entire career, Ricardo Piatti.

"I feel a responsibility to the game"

“I have to decide whether I am going to run for the ATP Board again,” he said as we sat down for a talk in the subterranean players’ lounge. "At the moment I am intending just to relax at my home here in Monaco with my wife and two children. I know I will need to do something because I am not the sort of person who can watch TV all day. And I do feel a responsibility to the game.”

Throughout his career, Ljubicic has demonstrated that responsibility to the game. Back in 2006 he was already President of the Players’ Council and, when a position fell vacant in 2008, Ljubicic became one of the few active players ever to serve on the seven-man Board of Directors.          

“It was a very different experience from being on the Council,” he explained. “The Council sticks to rules and player issues. But on the Board you are exposed to the whole business of professional sport and find yourself talking about TV rights, sponsorships and calendars. It was fascinating and a huge responsibility and I learned a lot.”

LjubicicThere are those in the game who feel that this involvement with the sports politics hurt his career as it was around this time that his South African Airways ATP Ranking fell from a one time high of No. 3 into the 40s. But, interestingly, Ljubicic refutes this. “Actually the only time I felt my career suffered from involvement with politics came when I was on the Council, not the Board,” he said. “It was at the US Open in 2006 and we had a long meeting the night before I played Feliciano Lopez. There were a couple of big issues that didn’t go the way I wanted because there are 10 guys voting and you never know how things are going to turn out. I got very frustrated and continued talking about it over dinner with my good friend Thomas Johansson. It was on my mind all night and the next day I was completely flat and lost to Lopez 4, 4 and 4. As a result of that I got people to agree to have meetings on Fridays before a tournament rather than Sundays.”

The decision to quit for good was virtually made for him. “I had problems with my ankle, knees, back and was spending 80% of my time dealing with pain. It was not going to get better,” he said before reflecting on the journey that had taken him from his home town of Banja Luka in Boznia Herzogovina, fleeing as a refugee, to luxury retirement in Monaco.

I remember him telling me some time ago about how he and his father were unable to reach their local tennis club one morning because of armed militia barring the way. “That’s right,” he said. “It was the beginning of the war and, after that incident, my father decided it was time to get out. So my mother and my brother and I got the last cargo plan out to Belgrade and then took a very long bus journey through Hungary to get to a refugee camp in Opatija in Croatia. After four months we were ejected because there was only room for native Croatians.”

"We need to be thinking about the future now"

After Mr Ljubicic joined them, they managed to swop their large home in Banja Luka for a small apartment. “Not a fair swap but we had no option,” Ivan recalls sadly.

Then his luck began to change. In 1992, when he was 13, Ivan was chosen as one of a dozen young players invited to go to a big club outside Turin in Italy. “They were fantastic to us – paid for everything,” he says. “It was there I met Ricardo and he asked me to join his team, which included Renzo Furlan and Cristiano Caratti. It meant moving to Monte Carlo and I didn’t hesitate!”

It took him a while to get his foot on the ATP ladder because Piatti’s method of coaching does not cut corners. “You do not get immediate results with Ricardo,” Lubjicic explained. “More than backhands or forehands, he tries to make you an independent person and teaches you to understand yourself. He became a father figure to me.”

LjubicicOnce he had discovered what it took to translate his natural abilities into results, Ljubicic quickly made his presence felt on the tour. Looking back, he picks out the Olympic bronze medal he won with Mario Ancic in the doubles in 2004; the Davis Cup triumph, beating Slovakia in the final in 2005; rising to World No. 3 and then winning his first ATP Masters 1000 title at Indian Wells in 2010 as the four highlights of a fine career.

Personally, I never saw him play better than he did in the year Croatia won the Davis Cup at Carson in California when, against all odds, he took on the full might of the US team and beat them almost off his own bat. After disposing of a shocked Andre Agassi 6-3, 7-6, 6-3, Ljubicic, partnered by Ancic again, then inflicted a first Davis Cup defeat on Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan before clinching the first-round tie with a four-set win over Andy Roddick. It was a virtually flawless performance. 

“Actually, I was very confident going into that tie,” he said. “I had just been in three ATP finals in Doha, Rotterdam and Dubai and had lost to Roger Federer in all three. And then the Americans put us on a slow hard court with fast ball – great for me. My kick serve bounced too high for Agassi and he struggled to get it back above his shoulder. Everything worked out perfectly for us.”

"He’s a bright guy, with so much to offer"

Now, as an elder statesman, Ljubicic can take a step back and view the sport as a whole. “As long as the top four guys are out there, obviously the game is in great shape,” he says. “But the ATP must be preparing for the day when world super stars like Roger and Rafa are no longer around. Hopefully Novak and Andy Murray will continue for a long time yet but we need to be thinking about the future now.”

He is talking of innovation; of getting the balance right between court, ball and strings and more. As friend and former player Thomas Johansson says, “He’s such a bright guy, with so much to offer. The game really needs people like Ivan.”

Something tells me Ivan Ljubicic is on the brink of starting a new career.

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