It was shortly after the conclusion of the 2005 Davis Cup, won by Croatia on the strength of
That's probably how we'll remember Ljubicic, the man who overpowered
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
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
"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
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