It was shortly after the conclusion of the 2005 Davis Cup, won by Croatia on the strength of Ivan Ljubicic's 11-1 record, when someone asked Roger Federer about the tall, bald fellow at the center of things. "He's very secure, you know," Federer said. "He doesn't really look like he's going to panic."
That's probably how we'll remember Ljubicic, the man who overpowered Andy Roddick in Sunday's final at Indian Wells: calm, decidedly nondescript, yet remarkably gifted. Like all tennis fans, I've seen quite a few of his matches since he first joined the tour in 1999 -- and like many of those people, I'm just now realizing the full extent of his court command.
It was clear to everyone that Roddick got outserved and, as Roddick remained in search of his first top-shelf title in nearly four years ('06 Cincinnati), that had to be monumentally depressing. But there's so much more to Ljubicic than meets the eye. If you saw his masterful, three-set dismantling of Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, you witnessed a performance of ingenuity and instinct.
It was wonderful, too, to hear the inspired Ljubicic in his post-match analysis that night: "I felt really creative out there. I played all different shots: lobs, drop shots, volleys, winners, slices. I just felt I could hit the ball anywhere. I was playing the shots that were coming to my mind."
By the end of that match, which finished in a 7-1 tiebreaker, Ljubicic had unnerved Nadal and beaten the man at his own game. That's the match he really wanted, and it was heartwarming to see this stoic individual celebrating with such unbridled joy. By the time Ljubicic took the court against Roddick, he had no doubts about winning the first Masters 1000 event of his life. And while it wasn't quite the whimsical arsenal he threw at Nadal, Ljubicic played another clever, forthright match, displaying great hands, crisp volleys, ever-so-casual drop shots and, of course, the punishing serves.
"What you saw the last two days," Roddick said, "was an exhibition in how-to on serving big points. Ivan had complete control over all four spots."
Roddick, like Federer and most everyone on tour, has the highest regard for Ljubicic. "It seems like he always plays the game the right way," Roddick said after the match. "You don't see a whole lot of histrionics out of him. And he was pretty dedicated to Davis Cup for a long time. There are a lot of things you can respect about him."
There's certainly no mystery to Ljubicic's loyalty, or the strength of his character. Born in Bosnia and Herzegovena, he was 13 when his native land became a killing ground, the site of unspeakable atrocities. His father, Marko, decided the best course for his wife (a Muslim) and two children was to leave the country -- but it wasn't so easy. Ivan recalls "control points, people pointing guns at us, asking where we were going," and crawling under barbed wire to escape further scrutiny. After fleeing aboard a cargo aircraft out of Belgrade, they eventually found refuge in Turin, Italy, where tennis-academy officials had an open-door welcome to promising Croatian players. That's where Ivan's game blossomed (as well as his education; he learned to speak Italian and English), and he didn't return to Croatia until 1996, four years after the fighting began.
As his career progressed, Ljubicic often wondered about his place in the tennis hierarchy. He ascended to No. 3 in the world at one point, but there always seemed to younger, more graceful players on the rise -- to say nothing of the occasional prankster. Ljubicic was on a hot streak early in the 2005 season when he arrived in Miami, opened his locker and found a naked man inside. It was Michael Llodra, all curled up in a ball, smiling broadly.
"Shock. Completely shocked," Ljubicic explained at the time. "Michael Llodra naked in my locker. He says, 'I'm trying to get positive energy from you. You're winning a lot of matches this year.' And it worked! (Llodra and Arnaud Clements went out and upset the Bryans in doubles) Now, when I'm opening my locker, I'm opening really slowly. I mean, after this, I don't know what I'm going to find in there."
This is how we've known Ljubicic over the years: refugee, competitor, all class, and the guy who found a naked Frenchman in his locker. Maybe he'll never win a major, but at the close of the Indian Wells tournament Jelena Jankovic calls "the fifth most important we have," Ljubicic could finally call himself a champion. Many glasses were raised in tribute.
INDIAN WELLS NOTES: That was a terrific win for Jankovic, completely free of the drama, mental walkabouts or spirit-crushing errors that caused her fall from grace. This was the old Jankovic, the one who rose to world No. 1 in 2008, and the crowd seemed to thoroughly enjoy her 6-2, 6-4 dismissal of Caroline Wozniacki. You'd think that Jankovic, so emotionally vulnerable over the past few months, would find it a daunting proposition to play a 19-year-old already ranked No. 2 in the world. If she had any anxiety at all, it disappeared once she realized that Wozniacki still has a very erratic forehand. Until that improves, the most dangerous threats (behind top-ranked Serena Williams) will be Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and, when the stars align just right, Venus Williams . . . If Jankovic looked particularly serene, it's partly because she's in the process of building a 20,000-square foot in Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego, featuring a swimming pool, tennis court, fitness center and 10-car garage . . . Television viewers caught a glimpse of on-court coaching, which the WTA Tour seems to think is a great idea, complete with a courtside microphone. Couldn't have been more dreary. Even the players seemed disinterested. Tennis is all about thinking, competing and making crucial adjustments on your own; how could anyone even propose such a thing? Things really hit rock bottom when Jankovic's coach, Chip Brooks, leaned his right elbow on Jelena's thigh to make a point, and she angrily brushed it off.
Nicole Vaidisova announced her retirement during the event, and while some expect her to return, I'm not so sure. Vaidisova never seemed to get any joy out of tennis, even in her best moments. Clijsters certainly feels that way, saying, "She was a big talent, but when I practiced or trained with her, I never got the feeling that she was out there for the fun of it. I think she felt a lot of pressure -- maybe from her entourage. After a while, it becomes very draining. She was always someone who was very down and showed a lot of emotions." . . . Federer can be brutally (and refreshingly) honest in his press conferences. He didn't feel like giving Marcos Baghdatisany credit after losing in a third-set tiebreaker, saying, "Just because he beat me doesn't mean he played the match of his life. Tonight he just hung in there, and that was enough." As for Baghdatis' superb play in the tiebreaker, Federer snapped, "If you want to see it that way, you can. The way I see it, I should never be in a breaker. So why analyze the breaker?" . . . Who can figure Nadal's tournament? At a time when you'd expect him to ease his tender knees back into shape, particularly on a hardcourt, he didn't just play doubles, he won the final (with Marc Lopez) against one of the top teams in the world, Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic. He also had an uncharacteristic lapse against Ljubicic, admitting later that he was "destroyed mentally" by the time Ljubicic unloaded a down-the-line forehand to clinch the match. In various media reports, Nadal was described as "sloppy," "passive" and (by Inside Tennis' Matt Cronin) "playing scared" in the tiebreaker. A fleeting episode, one would think. Nadal eventually dismissed the whole thing as "an accident." . . . Good stuff from up-and-coming American John Isner in his three-set loss to Nadal, particularly with his all-world forehand. "If he improves just a little bit more," said Nadal, "it's going to be very difficult to stop him."