Ivan Ljubicic retires from professional tennis after a stellar career which included 10 titles
The 33-year-old was also part of Croatian Davis Cup team which beat Slovakia in 2005
Says Djokovic displayed mental strengths as a youngster but was not the best technically
Ljubicic claimed ATP Indian Wells Masters title at the age of 31 in 2010
He predicted it would be an emotional occasion, and so it proved.
Ivan Ljubicic could have chosen to bow out from tennis on a grander stage, but the Monte Carlo Masters was the perfect place for him.
“I picked this one as my last because in 1999 I beat (Russia’s Yevgeny) Kafelnikov, which was my first big victory, my breakthrough. So I felt like it was the right moment, the right place to finish it off,” the 33-year-old told CNN.
His first round defeat to fellow Croatian Ivan Dodig this month brought the curtain down on a stellar career which took him from his war-torn homeland to the international stage, becoming one of the game’s most polished performers, on and off the court.
“As impressive as his achievements were on the court, Ivan will also be remembered for the way he carried himself away from the court,” the head of the ATP Tour Brad Drewett said after the former world No. 3’s tearful exit in his adopted home – a haven for the rich and famous, and a far cry from his birthplace in the former Yugoslavia.
“A true gentleman and ever popular amongst his peers, we thank Ivan for his first-rate contributions to the sport throughout his career, and wish him the very best for the future,” Drewett added of Ljubicic, who will now spend more time with his wife and two young kids.
Ljubicic bagged 10 ATP Tour titles during a 14-year career, his last coming in 2010 at the Indian Wells Masters in California when he beat American former world No. 1 Andy Roddick in the final.
It was a deeply satisfying result for Ljubicic who, at the age of 31, became the oldest first-time winner of an ATP Tour Masters 1000 title in history.
But his success wasn’t limited to individual events.
Together with Mario Ancic, Goran Ivanisevic and Ivo Karlovic, Ljubicic was part of Croatia’s victorious 2005 Davis Cup team, becoming the only unseeded country to win the event.
The dramatic 3-2 victory over Slovakia sparked wild celebrations in Zagreb’s main square and followed on from a bronze medal he and Ancic won in the doubles at the Athens Olympics the previous summer.
Both occasions were proud moments for Ljubicic who was forced to flee his home as a 13-year-old in May 1992 as Croatia battled to maintain the independence it declared the previous year.
“I was living in the Serbian part of Bosnia, so it wasn’t a pleasant place to be at that moment,” he recalls.
“I left with my mother and my brother. My father stayed, but he managed to get out in November the same year.”
It was during this time that Ljubicic was invited to attend a tennis club in Moncalieri, a town near Turin in northern Italy.
“It was the beginning of my tennis career,” he says. “My parents thought it was a good idea, so I left Bosnia in 1993 and stayed for three years and in 1996 I started to have some good results.”
An appearance in the Wimbledon juniors’ final the same year was followed by his first sponsorship deal, marking his arrival in the professional ranks.
A decade later, Ljubicic would reach the pinnacle of his career, rising to third in the world rankings behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – an achievement which remains a tremendous source of pride.
“I felt like I was No. 1 because at the time it was impossible to get to these guys. It is something I am really proud of. I felt like the No. 1 of normal people,” he said.
With their opposing personalities and playing styles, he says Federer and Nadal have created a unique era in tennis which will be difficult for a new generation to repeat.
“In the past we had a little bit of that with Agassi and Sampras but they were both American. Now we have a Swiss guy and a Spanish guy,” Ljubicic said.
And with current No. 1 Djokovic “coming from another world at the moment” – these are great times for tennis, he thinks.
Ljubicic recalls practicing with an 18-year-old Djokovic back in 2005 and wasn’t immediately struck by the Serbian’s game technically.
But what he did observe, even at that young age, was a steely determination.
“Mentally he was ready. You could see it when you met him. He was so ready to be the best player that you could see it was going to happen, one way or the other,” Ljubicic said.
He predicts the top three will continue to dominate for another couple of seasons but with youngsters like Canada’s Milos Raonic, Australia’s Bernard Tomic and American Ryan Harrison coming through, a more varied set of grand slam champions looks set to emerge.
For Ljubicic, the labors of the tennis court may now be over, but family responsibilities at his home in Monte Carlo will more than fill that void.
“I have two kids now – a three-and-a-half-year-old boy and a girl who is four months,” he said.
“We’re going to spend a lot of time together. This period before they go to school is special and I want to spend as much time as possible with them.”