Ivan Ljubicic: Coaching A Top Player
Former World No. 3 gives an insight into working with top players
When Ivan Ljubicic ended his playing career in April 2012 he made a seamless transition into the television commentary booth. However, the highly respected and consummate professional both on and off the court was soon in high demand by current ATP World Tour stars.
“My view is that if you want to do anything in tennis you have to be ready to travel,” Ljubicic exclusively told ATPWorldTour.com in Rotterdam. “The sport's the way it is, you can’t just sit at home. The biggest difference now is that when I am at home, I am at home. I don’t need to train or anything. I therefore spend quality time with my wife and kids.”
As a former World No. 3, who worked under the guidance of Riccardo Piatti, the only coach of his 15-season professional career, Ljubicic competed at the very highest level and barely one year after retiring he found himself in the corner of Canada’s Milos Raonic (2013-2015).
The Croatian has travelled as part of team Roger Federer since early 2016 and last week at the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament, Ljubicic gave ATPWorldTour.com an insight into his coaching methods. On Monday this week, at 36 years of age, Federer rose back to No. 1 in the ATP Rankings for the first time since 4 November 2012.
“When you talk about coaching at the highest level, you have to listen a lot,” said Ljubicic in Rotterdam, where Federer lifted his 97th tour-level trophy. “The most important thing is to understand a player. Listen at the beginning, but then listening in general to understand and ultimately help a player.
“When you start with a player in the middle of a season, such as Milos, you can’t step in and say, ‘I want to change everything, because this is how I did it.’ I feel that it doesn’t work like that.
“You see, if you are coaching a player, who has been around for a while, he has his own patterns and ideas. His own opinions on a lot of stuff, and you have to pick your fights on what you think will have the biggest impact on a game or the result.”
Since Ljubicic joined Severin Luthi, Federer’s coach since 2008, the Swiss superstar has won nine titles - including three Grand Slam championships and three ATP World Tour Masters 1000s - from 11 finals and taken a six-month lay-off in 2016 to recover from knee surgery.
“The biggest difference between coaching and playing is that the player is the boss,” said Ljubicic. “The player has to be mentally strong, a leader, because on the court, he makes all of the decisions. Then, as a coach, you have to put your ego aside and make sure you do everything the player needs to compete better and be a better person.
“In coaching Milos or Roger, I never thought about short and long-term impacts. I think about how do I improve a player? How can this be better? What can be done? The truth is if you don’t make a quick impact, there might not be any long-term goals. That’s the tricky part. There is a fair amount of luck also, because you need to get results at the beginning and the confidence of a player. No matter how sure the player is in his confidence of a coach, if the results aren’t there after a while, then all sorts of problems arise.”
As a player, Ljubicic captured 10 ATP World Tour trophies during his career, highlighted by a title run to the 2010 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells that saw him beat Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick. Naturally, being in the competitive cauldron garnered respect when he started coaching.
“As a player you do whatever you want,” said Ljubicic. “As a coach you have to standby a lot of the time. Coaching is the closest thing to playing tennis. I love it and the adrenaline. The emotions are sometimes very strong, but they won’t ever be as they are as a player, when you win or you lose. You can’t compare it. The emotions are similar, but it’s a lower intensity.
“As a coach, you have to have the respect of a player. Experience can be something you personally went through or you watched on TV. It is two different things. I’m not saying myself or a player who didn’t compete at the highest level are saying two different things.
“But I always try to make a point, I try to make an impact. I don’t talk a lot and the players that I have coached can confirm this. If I do say something, I will stand by it.”
In beginning his transition from being a player to a coach, Ljubicic relied on Piatti, but also one of Federer’s former coaches.
The 38-year-old Ljubicic recalled, “I remember speaking to Paul Annacone when I was still playing and asking him ‘What’s it like to coach?’ I was just curious and he told me that the most important thing was to listen. You have to keep improving yourself as a coach, you have to listen, study, look around as you never know what information may be useful to yourself.”
So what’s the toughest part of the job?
“The toughest part is to know where there is the line,” said Ljubicic. “When to let go or step in and say something. That’s probably the most complex part of the job.
“As a coach, you can’t be selfish. It just doesn’t work. You have to understand, and it’s even better for a player to make a mistake by doing something that’s contrary to what you think. A player steps onto court and wins matches. I’ve had many different hats in my career, but I’ll always think players run the show.”