At Columbia Law School's graduate orientation in the fall of 2012, the Dean of Legal Studies, Sylvia Polo, addressed the school’s 300 incoming students: “How many of you have a background in corporate law?” About 90 hands promptly went up. She continued, “How many of you have experience in litigation?” Fewer hands this time. Finally she said, “How many of you have won an Olympic medal?”
The student who had -- Mario Ancic -- didn't raise his hand. The Dean explained that he was a former professional tennis player ranked No. 7 in the world and had won a bronze medal for Croatia in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Stunned lawyers turned to look in awe at the 6-foot-5 tennis star sitting among them.
For most of a decade, Ancic was a national celebrity. In 2002 the Wimbledon Centre Court crowd came to its feet when Grand Slam debutant Ancic, then only 18-years-old, stunned Roger Federer. He came back in 2004 to upset British hopeful Tim Henman in route to the semifinals and Boris Becker said, “The future of tennis has arrived – and his name is Mario Ancic.” And in 2005, he won the deciding rubber against Slovak Republic with his team tied 2-2 to help Croatia win its first Davis Cup.
But all that ended rather unexpectedly. He was diagnosed with mononucleosis in 2007. Fevers, thyroid abnormalities and dizziness followed. He felt so fatigued and drained that at one point he couldn't get out of his bed for 10 weeks. “There I was, 22 years old, at the top of my career and I couldn’t even walk," Ancic said. After recurring viral infections and a back injury, he was forced to retire at the age of 26 – a prime time in most men’s tennis careers.
"Heart wanted but body couldn't. This is the toughest day of my life," said Ancic in Croatian in February 2011, eyes and nose red with sobbing. "I'll need a lot of time before I can watch top tennis in peace."
In the months after his retirement, Ancic decided on a legal career in the United States. He had enrolled in law school at the University of Split in Croatia in 2008 while he was sidelined with mono, but now he thrives in the Columbia University community in New York City. He interned with Brooklyn Nets’ chief legal officer Jeff Gewirtz in the fall of 2013 and worked as an associate with Debevoise & Plimpton during the summer a year later. In 2015, he’ll graduate with a Juris Doctor degree.
He said he was so focused on getting to the top in his tennis career that if someone had told him that he'd be a Columbia student, he would have found the idea crazy.
But now, he aims to break new records in the Law School library. Among his classmates, he’s known for holing up there before big assignments. As he walked down the staircase, a classmate asked him, "How many hours (in the library) today?"
The close-knit Columbia community makes him feel at peace, but memories from his professional athlete past still strike sometimes.
“There's no traveling around the world, no performing in front of millions and millions of people, no fans, interviews, events, press conferences, appearances," he said. His apartment on Amsterdam Avenue and turkey sandwiches from Milano Market are vastly different from the swanky Midtown hotels and dinners he was used to during the U.S. Open.
Every time he comes across an unfamiliar hurdle, he draws lessons from his past. “The way I cope with stress at the Law School are the things that I learned from the sport," he said. "In some way I feel having that experience as an athlete, of being able to push myself every day, over and over again, helped a lot.”
Ancic has used the time away from the spotlight to discover other pleasures: greasy pizza, house parties, chicken and waffles from Harlem, coffee-powered all-nighters and the leisure of free time. "I don't have to go to sleep anymore," he said. "Here, you are your own boss more."
Though he now has more business wear in his wardrobe than tennis gear, Ancic still yearns to get on the court. After an invitation from Columbia women’s tennis player, Katarina Kovacevic, Ancic visited the courts and hit with the men’s team. Eager to share lessons from his tennis career, he immediately made himself available to the players for any consultation that they may need.
“Mario always makes time to see their matches,” said assistant coach Howard Endelman. “He’s somebody who’s faced everything at the highest level. Any situation that anyone from our team will ever be in, he’s already experienced. It’s great to have him around as a role model for the boys to emulate.”
Sometimes Ancic makes his two worlds merge. When he took time off from the law books, he joined his classmates at a Meatpacking District nightclub with a tall, supermodel-looking woman who classmates later recognized as former No. 1 Serbian tennis player, Ava Ivanovic. During the U.S. Open last year, he introduced some friends to Federer and wished his Tour companions good luck. “They talk about Grand Slams, I talk about exams,” Ancic said. When Djokovic came to New York in March for an exhibition against Andy Murray at Madison Square Garden, Ancic brought him to the Law School for a talk on the legal aspect of sports.
"What impresses me most is that Ancic is one of the very few top world level athletes who reached the highest point in his sport and then completely reinvented himself in another field,” Endelman said of Ancic’s two careers.
Djokovic’s talk was co-presented by Debevoise & Plimpton, where Ancic will finish interning in August 2014. Having had one career cut short, he doesn't want to think too far ahead about the other.
“I've started believing in the saying: if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,” Ancic said. “It’s like winning one set. Now the second has started. Hopefully I’ll be able to say I won in straight sets.”