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Steve Flink: Ljubicic's Revival

3/22/2010 6:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

I have always liked Ivan Ljubicic. He is an earnest craftsman, a player’s player, a decent man who has carried himself honorably across the years. When he was No. 3 in the world four years ago, I felt he belonged in that territory, and thought he should have stayed in the top five much longer than he did. But Ljubicic is a selfless character, and he threw his heart and soul into the political world, establishing himself as an extraordinary leader on the ATP Player Council and the ATP Board, making that his higher priority. As he moved through his late twenties, Ljubicic was no longer the player he once was, and it seemed entirely possible that he never would recover his old winning ways.

There were, however, signs in 2009 that his zest for competition was resurfacing. He had finished 2008 at No. 45 in the world, but last year he climbed back to No. 24, winning an ATP World Tour title in Lyon, and reaching three quarterfinals at Masters 1000 events, toppling Del Potro and Tsonga among others in those tournaments. He did indeed enjoy a fruitful season in 2009, yet not even Ljubicic himself was quite prepared for what he would accomplish this past week on the hard courts at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. In an astonishing twist of good fortune, hard work and inspired play, Ljubicic captured the most prestigious title of his distinguished career, securing his first ever Masters 1000 tournament crown, bringing down world No. 2 Novak Djokovic, No. 3 Rafael Nadal, and No. 8 Andy Roddick in a blaze of glory no one could have envisioned. Ljubicic turned 31 a day before he stunned Nadal, celebrating success on a scale he never had experienced before.

The final against Roddick was hard fought and well played, and could have gone either way. But Ljubicic was the better player when it really counted. In the opening game of the match, Roddick was down 0-40 but he battled his way tenaciously out of that danger zone. At 0-40, he sent a big first serve down the T and Ljubicic could not control a difficult return. Roddick then swung his first serve wide, opened up the court for the forehand approach, and provoked a backhand passing shot error from the big Croatian. It was now 30-40, and Roddick was determined not to get broken. He aced Ljubicic down the T and went on to hold. Ljubicic had thrice reached break point, but would not earn another in the entire match.

The next crucial game occurred when Ljubicic served at 1-2. He was behind 0-40, and missed his first serve. Ljubicic drove his fluid topspin backhand down the line, and Roddick seemingly was poised to roll his forehand deep and stay in the point. But he miss-hit a shot off that side completely. Ljubicic released a thundering service winner followed by an ace wide to Roddick’s backhand in the Ad court. It was deuce. Ljubicic held on with another ace and a dazzling backhand winner down the line. Ljubicic had stood his ground confidently, and he was back to 2-2.

When Ljubicic served at 4-5, he was on the edge of failure, down set point to the 27-year-old American. But he stymied Roddick with a magnificent first serve down the T. Roddick tried hard to answer that delivery, but his chipped forehand return went into the net. Ljubicic escaped, held for 5-5, and soon the two combatants headed into a pivotal tie-break. Roddick had won 14 of the 16 tie-breaks he had played in 2010, and he had prevailed in 8 of the 12 he had played against Ljubicic over the course of their careers.

This time, he gambled on the first point of the tie-break, but his bold move backfired. For the first time in the match, he served-and-volleyed, but Ljubicic kept his return low and Roddick punched a backhand volley out. That point was critical, giving Ljubicic an immediate mini-break, allowing the Croatian a quick confidence boost in the process. Ljubicic did not concede a single point on his serve in that sequence. When he was up 3-2, Ljubicic missed his first serve on the next two points, but he frustrated Roddick with a kick serve into the body on the backhand side, and another kicker to the backhand that was not easy to handle. Roddick missed both returns. That was essentially the set. Ljubicic took that tie-break 7-3.

In the second set, Ljubicic found himself in uncomfortable territory as he served at 4-4, 0-30. He went for broke, unleashing a backhand down the line with the slimmest possible margin for error. And yet, he somehow clipped the line for a winner. But Roddick pressed on, and twice reached break point in that critical game. Had he converted on either one, Roddick would have been serving for the second set, and he might well have seized control of the contest. Ljubicic simply would not allow that to happen. His best serve in the Ad court is out wide to the backhand; no one in the sport hits that spot better than he does.

 But Ljubicic confounded Roddick on both break points by connecting with terrific first serves down the T, and the American was unable to guide his forehand returns back into play. After five deuces, Ljubicic held on for 5-4 with his trademark ace wide in the Ad court. Roddick was surely distressed, but he proceeded to serve two love games in a row to reach another tie-break. In this one, serving at 1-1, Roddick got to the net but Ljubicic made him lunge for two tough volleys. Then the Croatian passed the American cleanly off the forehand to gain the mini-break for 2-1.

Ljubicic then produced consecutive aces to reach 4-1, and he made it 5-1 when Roddick netted a forehand approach. Serving at 6-2, Ljubicic double faulted when he went for a huge second serve, and Roddick took the next two points to close the gap to 6-5. Ljubicic took his time, and sent out one last overpowering first serve deep to the backhand. Roddick had no play. The match was over, with Ljubicic victorious 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5). He deserves many plaudits for capturing the Indian Wells title. Ljubicic had won only 3 of his 10 previous meetings with Roddick. He had beaten Nadal only once in six confrontations prior to Indian Wells, and his record against Djokovic was identical. Clearly, Ljubicic had the week of his career, and his triumph was well deserved.

As for Roddick, this was yet another arduous setback. His draw had opened up all week. He was expected to meet Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, but the world No. 1 was upended by Marcos Baghdatis in the third round. Roddick could have collided with Andy Murray in the semifinals, but Murray was upset by Robin Soderling in the quarters. And the American figured to take on Rafael Nadal in the championship match, but Nadal was halted by Ljubicic. Roddick must have liked his chances against Ljubicic, but his pattern of losing agonizingly close battles continues. He won the first set against Federer in their gripping Wimbledon final of 2009, took a 6-2 lead in the second set tie-break, but squandered that opportunity and eventually lost gallantly 16-14 in the fifth set. Over that summer, he had a 3-1 final set lead against Del Potro in Washington but lost that final; six days later at the Rogers Cup in Canada, Roddick had a match point against the big Argentine in the semifinals but came up short again. At the U.S. Open, he fell in a fifth set tie-break against John Isner.

After winning Brisbane at the start of the 2010 season, Roddick surprisingly lost to Fernando Verdasco after winning the first set of their final in San Jose. He had beaten the Spaniard seven times in a row. Now it has happened again. His loss to Ljubicic was yet another case of Roddick coming up short despite giving it his all. I wonder if there are still lingering effects from that Wimbledon final last year; since that crucial moment, Roddick is losing too many matches that could have been his for the taking. In the tight corners of these contests, he is not imposing himself as much as he needs to, and Roddick has been found wanting time and again.

Nadal has had similar difficulties in coming through on the big points since his comeback last summer, and Indian Wells was a prime example. The Spaniard had played an impressive match to bring down the towering, 6’9” John Isner in the round of 16. His return of serve that day was remarkable. Nadal broke Isner at 5-5 in the opening set, played one loose game in losing his serve at 1-2 in the second set (serving two double faults and making a bad unforced error) but struck back boldly to take the third set to win that match 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. He followed with a 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory over Tomas Berdych, playing some inspired tennis in that skirmish under the lights.

On the heels of those two triumphs, Nadal seemed more than capable of winning his first tournament since claiming the Italian Open title last May. He had rediscovered his spark, his growing intensity was almost tangible, he was taking the ball early off the forehand and seizing control of points, and he was highly motivated and focused in his first tournament since the Australian Open. Nadal started confidently in his semifinal with Ljubicic. On a windy day, Ljubicic double faulted three times in the opening game of the match and Nadal got the immediate break. He was coasting by the end of that set, holding at love for 5-3, breaking Ljubicic at love in the ninth game, and heading inexorably toward victory.

Or so it seemed. With Ljubicic serving at 2-3 in the second set, Nadal had a 0-40 opening. Had he broken there, Nadal surely would have closed out the match swiftly. But somehow Ljubicic escaped despite missing his first serve on two of the three break points against him. Nadal earned a fourth break point but Ljubicic released a big first serve that Nadal could only return meekly. Ljubicic easily dispatched a forehand into a wide open space. He held on for 3-3. At 4-4, Nadal had a game point on his serve but Ljubicic laced a backhand crosscourt, luring Nadal into a forehand error on the run. Nadal double faulted at break point down, and soon it was one set all.

The Spaniard made a stream of uncharacteristic forehand unforced errors to lose his serve in the opening game of the final set, but he broke right back for 1-1. Nadal seemed to regain his conviction. On his way to a 4-3 lead, Nadal lost only one point in three service games. With Ljubicic serving in the eighth game, Nadal reached break point when Ljubicic served a double fault. The Spaniard was only a point away from a chance to serve for the match. Ljubicic was unflustered. He served a boomer out wide to Nadal’s forehand and the Spaniard had no answer. Ljubicic gamely held on for 4-4 with an ace. With Ljubicic serving at 4-5, Nadal applied the pressure again. He reached deuce, two points away from victory, only to net a backhand pass crosscourt.

On they went to a tie-break. Nadal won the first point on serve. With Ljubicic serving at 0-1, Nadal moved up to the net and had a routine backhand volley. Rather than knife it away crosscourt, he directed that volley back down the line, and Ljubicic was well positioned to roll a backhand pass crosscourt. Nadal missed a forehand volley at full stretch. It was 1-1, and Nadal had missed a glaring opening to establish a mini-break. Ljubicic never looked back, acing Nadal for 2-1, driving a topspin backhand down the line for a winner for 3-1. Ljubicic then rolled another ball up high to the Nadal forehand--- a fine strategic play that worked regularly in the gusty conditions--- and the Spaniard missed flagrantly over the baseline. It was 4-1.

Ljubicic quickly collected three more points in a row, running out the match with seven consecutive points for an astounding 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (1) win. The loss was jarring for Nadal, who had won Indian Wells twice in the previous three years. He thought he was on his way to another championship, but he let too many opportunities elude him. What should have been a straight set win for Nadal turned into a three set exercise in agony, but Ljubicic deserves high marks for the way he served under pressure over the last two sets.

It was not as surprising that Ljubicic was able to handle Djokovic in straight sets. The Serbian had worked hard to win the tournament in Dubai before leading his nation past the U.S. in Davis Cup. By the time he arrived at Indian Wells, his emotional energy was in short supply. Somehow he escaped from triple match point down against Philip Kohlschreiber in the third round, avenging his 2009 French Open loss to the German. At 4-5, 0-40 in the final set of this clash at Indian Wells, Djokovic attacked his way out of trouble, going forward time and again behind excellent forehand approach shots. He got through that match 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (4), but Ljubicic cast a listless Djokovic aside in a straight set, round of 16 duel.

Murray was overwhelmed by a top of the line Soderling in the quarters. Way out of sorts, unable to break the rhythm of Soderling from the back of the court, thwarted over and over again by an unerring adversary who was knocking the cover off the ball, Murray found himself down 1-6, 3-5, 15-40, double match point. He sliced his first serve wide to Soderling’s forehand to elicit an error on the first match point, then threw in an almost cavalier sidespin backhand drop shot down the line to provoke another error for deuce. Murray came in behind a first serve to the backhand and threw Soderling off guard to save a third match point and held on for 4-5.

Soderling promptly raced to 30-0 on his serve in the following game but Murray took four points in a row to break back as Soderling lost all belief in his overhead. Murray was back to 5-5, and both men held to set up a tie-break. Serving at 5-4 in the tie-break, Soderling took Murray’s crosscourt backhand and drove a two-hander of his own down the line for a clean winner. Then he kicked a second serve high to the Murray backhand, and the British player’s return went into the net. Soderling had won 6-1, 7-6 (4), and many people in the know anticipated a Swedish victory over Roddick the next day. It was not to be. From 3-3 in the opening set, Roddick won five of the next six games, broke Soderling twice, and put himself in command with a 6-4, 2-0 lead. Inexplicably, Roddick lost six of the next seven games as Soderling found his range off the forehand and began reading Roddick’s first serve surprisingly well. That made it one set all.

In the third set, Roddick took a 2-0 lead, but lost his serve again as Soderling climbed back to 2-2. Roddick held at love for 3-2, and then did some of his finest work. With Soderling serving at 2-3, 30-40, the Swede cracked a big first serve up the T, but Roddick got great depth on his forehand return. Soderling eventually missed with a crosscourt forehand wide, and Roddick was no longer inhibited. He held at love for 5-2, making four straight first serves, closing out that game with an ace. Two games later, despite missing four of six first serves, Roddick held to finish off a bizarre 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory.

As for Federer, he had not played since winning his 16th major at the Australian Open. In his first match against Victor Hanescu, a rusty Federer was taken to three sets. But for quite a while against Baghdatis, Federer looked sharp. He won the first set and reached double match point with the Cypriot serving at 4-5, 15-40 in the second set. Baghdatis pulled Federer off the court with a penetrating crosscourt forehand, and the world No. 1 drove a forehand long down the line. Then Baghdatis stepped up the pace on his two-hander crosscourt, and Federer was forced into a sliced backhand long. Baghdatis made it back to 5-5. Federer had not yet been broken, but in the eleventh game he missed five of six first serves, sprayed a couple of forehands long, netted a routine backhand slice, and lost his serve.

Baghdatis served out the second set, but Federer surged to 4-1 in the final set. Once more, the Cypriot found another gear and made it back to 4-4. Serving at 5-6, Baghdatis was in jeopardy again, down match point for the third time. After an exchange of crosscourt backhands, Federer went for broke, driving his topspin backhand down the line but into the net. Baghdatis had yet another life. In the final set tie-break, they were on serve until 4-4, when Federer rolled a backhand wide down the line under no pressure. Baghdatis then played a spectacular running forehand pass crosscourt and Federer could not dig out the low volley. Now serving at 6-4, double match point, Baghdatis went with the first serve that had done the most damage in the match, sending his delivery down the T to the Federer backhand. Federer’s sliced return floated long. Baghdatis prevailed 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (4) for his first win ever over the world No. 1.

For the men at Indian Wells, it was that kind of week, a week filled with the unexpected, a week when none of the leading players came through, a week when an old warrior played some of the best tennis of his life at the age of 31. Ljubicic reminded us how good he used to be, and how formidable he remains. He let his fellow players know emphatically that his time has not come and gone, that he is a rejuvenated competitor, that he will make his presence known all year on medium to fast hard courts, and indoors where he can get into a supreme serving rhythm. Ljubicic is back to No. 13 in the world, and he just might finish this year among the top ten. That, of course, would be no mean feat.

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