2006: Ljubicic — peaking late but right

Ivan Ljubicic has the game to take him up a notch. His groundstrokes and his shots off the baseline are not for the faint-hearted, and with the increasing rarity of the single-handed backhand comes its increasing beauty.

Ivan Ljubicic had a comfortable 7-6 (8-6), 6-2 win over Carlos Moya in the final.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

For someone who survived the escape from his birthplace Banja Luka during the Yugoslav wars along with his mother and brother, at an age when he could just about spell it, surviving minor matters like match points and set points with career-threatening (the opponent's that is) serves and sometimes life-threatening (again, the opponent's) shots for company should be easy. When your career is peaking the way Ivan Ljubicic's is, you can well afford to gift away a match point to Kristof Vliegen and a set point to Carlos Moya, and politely grab it back.

Pocketing the title in Chennai on way to Melbourne, Ljubicic has done what very few tennis players manage to do — wake up before slumbering in Davis Cup glory. He realizes that he has played for pride and won the race, but his record of playing for greatness (read Grand Slam record) is far from brilliant. But by the looks of it, he hasn't started off too badly. He realizes that there are still eight men above him, with one of them too far ahead. He also realizes that he has miles to go, at the age of 26, when most of his competitors are fresh of the boat of adolescence. But he doesn't mind. "I am perfectly happy peaking at this age. It really depends on each person," he said.

Not too surprising considering that the greatest tennis player to come out of his country — Goran Ivanisevic — finally won the mother of all Grand Slams at the age of 29 after three unsuccessful attempts.

Ljubicic has the game to take him up a notch. Enough has been written and said about his serve, which he manages with as much ease as swatting a fly. His groundstrokes and his shots off the baseline are not for the faint-hearted, and with the increasing rarity of the single-handed backhand comes its increasing beauty. These strengths should definitely do its bit in the Australian and the North American part of the world, but with legs that specially fancy the ground, the endlessly multiplying rallies in Roland Garros might wear him down, and with the exception of the Samprases and Federers, most people have some trouble on grass. But Ljubicic is more than aware of that. "I do practise on my movement on court. But I can only improve with each game. There are certain things that you can learn and master only during the matches," he said of his legwork.

At the Chennai Open, he did get off to a squeaky start, but finally had a comfortable 7-6 (8-6), 6-2 win over Carlos Moya in the final, thanks mainly to the Spaniard's tired legs. What really stood out throughout the tournament was the Croat's ability to hold his nerve and serve even when under pressure. He would throw down his racket, bring out his frustrations with a few words for the sole hearing privilege of his wife, and swiftly serve up an ace that would bail him out of almost every jail on the court. He kept his head when it looked like all escape routes had been shut.

But irrespective of whether Ljubicic the player will catch the first or the last plane from Melbourne, Ljubicic the Croatian will not clutter his mind with mundane airline worries. Not when a few more ingredients are slipped in through the Croat's attire when the magic words `Davis Cup' suddenly assume significance.

Croatia has created history and will be in no hurry to hand over the reins to anyone else. "It is difficult to say why and how (on the emergence of countries like his and Slovakia atop the Davis Cup hierarchy). I just guess it really matters more to us than some other countries," he explained.

Not surprising, considering that his ambition after wielding a tennis racket was not collecting ATP points or making shelf space for titles. It was to play for Croatia. Besides, Ljubicic is different in many other ways. Whether it is respecting an opponent who has just lost or agreeing to a post-match conference immediately after a late-night match, for the sake of the media, Ljubicic belongs to a breed that is as rare as a serve and volley player, in an era where `nice' is a term often overused and abused.

After a series of line calls that went against him, which resulted in a bit of racket abuse, Ljubicic later on remarked, "I guess the linesmen could not spot the ball properly because of me. Plus, it's been a long day for them, with three to four matches and its very late."

He is a man at peace with his game and his career. He is a man who has seen a lot, but could do a lot more. He is a man who had earlier said that his country might not have been aware of what they had achieved. He will not have such worries anymore.

(As appeared in The Sportstar on January 21, 2006)