Ivan Ljubicic: A proud leader

Ivan Ljubicic allowed himself to chill out last week. Unconcerned with tactics, rankings or fine-tuning his strokes, Ljubicic's training sessions were a joy rather than a burden.

"I'm having a good time," Ljubicic said in a telephone interview. "It's the first time in my career I'm relaxed and enjoying every single practice because I know they're the last ones of my career."

For some of his young life, circumstances didn't allow Ljubicic to relax much. He was born in what's now Bosnia-Herzegovina but fled to Croatia, leaving part of his family behind, because the nation was ravaged by war.

In a sport where tales of success wouldn't look strange on the big screen, Ljubicic's story is particularly suited to Hollywood. His shaved head and 6-foot-4 frame might best suit the role of a villain, yet in this case, looks are deceiving. He's considered well-spoken, intelligent and kind.

The final scene took place Sunday, a stone's throw from Ljubicic's home in Monte Carlo, as the 33-year-old was officially sent into retirement by fellow Croat Ivan Dodig in his farewell tournament, the Monte Carlo Masters. Had Marin Cilic been the opponent instead, a passing-of-the-torch moment was guaranteed.

Several factors led to Ljubicic quitting: Ankle problems, for one, and other, smaller physical issues surfaced. Ljubicic, then, became a father for the second time when his daughter, Zara, was born last fall. Traveling without his family to Indian Wells and Miami this year left him with more to ponder.

In the end, he was hardly tormented by his decision.

"I definitely wanted to have the first summer of my life off," Ljubicic said.

Ljubicic leaves tennis with 10 titles, including one Masters shield (Indian Wells, 2010); he won an Olympic bronze with Mario Ancic, reached a career high of No. 3 in the rankings and compiled arguably the finest single season in Davis Cup history. He surpassed $10 million in prize money last year.

That Ljubicic only began playing tennis at the age of 9 makes his accomplishments more impressive. Nowadays, many kids who eventually turn into pros begin soon after the diapers come off.

"I'm definitely, as a Croatian and companion of his on the tour, very proud of his career," Ancic said in a telephone interview. "I'm proud of everything he did. What a remarkable career. It was incredible, actually."

A career that was shaped by Ljubicic's longtime coach and second father, Riccardo Piatti, and blossomed when Ljubicic and Ancic secured the third spot at the Athens Olympics in 2004.

"That was the first big result for me," Ljubicic said. "I had a title already but that medal told me that I was mentally ready to do things. That's where everything really started for me in a positive way."

What Ljubicic did in the Davis Cup the next year was almost unprecedented. He went 11-1 in the team competition, only deprived of an unblemished record when he was topped by Slovak Dominik Hrbaty in five sets in his last match. A neck injury and illness caused by taking painkillers contributed to the surprising result. Ancic defeated Michal Mertinak in the decisive fifth match to give Croatia its maiden, and only, Davis Cup crown.

Consider that when John McEnroe went 12-0 for the U.S. in 1982, three of his encounters were so-called dead rubbers. All 12 of Ljubicic's were live and played a significant factor in Croatia's run to the title.

When it was suggested to Ljubicic that wins over Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick in the first round in California were huge, he added, "And don't forget, we beat the Bryan brothers, too."

It remains one of two Davis Cup doubles matches the U.S. twins have lost in 21 outings.

"Mario and me, we knew that from day one we would play all the matches that year," Ljubicic said. "When you have that in your head and that mindset, then it's maybe sometimes easier. We were fit and never minded playing a lot of tennis on the weekend. When you do something for the country that helped you in difficult times, it's even better. I think that is still considered one of the biggest achievements in Croatian sport in general, the Davis Cup title."

Ljubicic finished inside the top 10 in 2005, at No. 9, and improved to No. 5 a year later. His devastating serve made him one of the most productive indoor players of his generation, with Ljubicic saying that when he was in his prime he felt he could win every indoor tournament he contested -- if buddy Roger Federer wasn't his opponent.

His willingness to improve and make important decisions quickly, Piatti said, served his career well. Piatti recalled a tournament in Basel nine years ago when Ljubicic beat Federer, hitting 27 aces, before tiring versus Guillermo Coria in the semifinals. Ljubicic had prevailed over Coria on clay, the Argentine's preferred surface, five months earlier.

"When he came off the court, he said, 'Today the court was very, very slow,'" Piatti said in a telephone interview. "He was very pissed. After a day, I went to him and said, 'Listen, it's not the court that's slow, you are. You beat Federer, had those aces a few days ago. We need to find a different solution. We need to find a fitness coach to work with you for 200 days a year to follow us for two years.' He said, 'OK, you're right.'"

In came Salvador Sosa, who has also worked with, among others, Sergi Bruguera, Alex Corretja, Dinara Safina and Andrei Medvedev, all Grand Slam winners or finalists.

"This is a small example," Piatti said. "The thing is, I think not all players are professional like Ivan. Not at all."

Despite a lone appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal, Ljubicic doesn't have many regrets. But he wishes he could have the 2006 Australian Open quarterfinal against Marcos Baghdatis back.

Rallying in the third and fourth sets to force a fifth, Ljubicic missed two break points at 1-1 and was broken in the next game, when a line call bothered him. Baghdatis won the fifth 6-3.

"That tournament was the only chance for me maybe to go all the way," Ljubicic said.

Nor does Ljubicic think spending significant time on the player council and a shorter time as the European player representative on the ATP board adversely affected his game, except for an outing at the U.S. Open in 2006 when he was upset by Feliciano Lopez in the first round.

"We had a [council] meeting the day before the match, and it was a rough meeting," Ljubicic said. "Things didn't go really the way I thought they were supposed to go, and I wasn't happy about that. I suggested for future meetings, to schedule them the Friday before the Slams, not the day before. But other than that, I thought it was always good for me."

Will Ljubicic turn to politics, a la Russian Marat Safin, now that he's retired? Never say never, but the idea doesn't overly appeal to him. Ljubicic even turned down an approach to get involved from a government official in Croatia, he said.

Whatever he does, Piatti hopes it involves him. Piatti was Ljubicic's best man at his wedding in 2004, and the Italian's 7-year-old son, Rocco, is great pals with Ljubicic's 3-year-old son, Leonardo.

"They love each other so much," Ljubicic said.

Piatti called Ljubicic his "second dream," an opportunity to lead a player into the top 10. He spent nearly 20 years with former pupil Renzo Furlan, who fell short, reaching a career high of No. 19.

Piatti and Ljubicic teamed up for nearly that long, 15 years.

"The worst moment Ivan gave me is when he said he will finish in Monte Carlo," Piatti said. "You always think something you like is never going to finish."

"There's definitely a will from both of us to do something together," Ljubicic said. "We trust each other so much. The question is, what is it?"

The future is unknown. For now, Ljubicic has more relaxing to do.