My Masters 1000: Ivan Ljubicic
Editor's Note, March 2019: Ahead of his 40th birthday, take a walk down memory lane with Ivan Ljubicic...
Ivan Ljubicic’s birthday typically falls during the BNP Paribas Open, his favourite tournament. He marked the occasion on court in 2008, presented with a cake from Roger Federer, the man he now coaches. This year, when he celebrates his 38th birthday on final Sunday, he’ll be hoping for another special memory courtesy of the Swiss.
Seven years earlier in Indian Wells, Ljubicic knocked off three Top 10 players – Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick – en route to his biggest career title, fittingly at an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event. Over the Croatian’s prolific 15-year career, the Masters 1000 tournaments provided the stage for his breakthrough, his best tennis and his curtain call.
This week in Indian Wells, Ljubicic looked back on his many Masters 1000 highlights, including a lucky break at the 1999 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters and “epic” Madrid final against Nadal, and shared just how tough it is to win one of these titles.
Can you share your memories of your title run from 2010, when you became the oldest first-time Masters 1000 champion?
I remember playing well, feeling good, being scheduled on outside courts against Djokovic, which was a surprise for both of us, but I felt like it was better for me because I had the great result on outside courts. I remember beating him and then going to the quarter-finals, playing Juan Monaco, seeing Roger lose against [Marcos] Baghdatis in early rounds. After the quarters I had a day off before the semi-finals, which was my birthday. Everything felt right. Everything felt special, and then in semis against Rafa, I had one of the biggest wins in my career, winning 7-6 in the third after losing the first set.
Going into the final against Andy Roddick, I felt good, I felt relaxed. I felt like I had a shot. I felt like I deserved the title even before playing the final. I had three Masters 1000 finals before that, and against Andy, it was always about details. One point here and there. We played so many times against each other, so many tie-breaks, so it was not a surprise to see that we played two tie-breaks in the final. I think in the end I was the one that maybe felt less pressure. I didn’t know back then, but it became the only really big title that Andy didn’t win in the States. I felt calm. I felt like it’s my opportunity, my chance, and I deserve it. That’s how I felt throughout that final. It felt incredibly satisfying to end up winning it.
How did you celebrate that win?
I remember being here with my son, who was born a year and a half before that. We just went back and enjoyed dinner together with the team, with friends. With the years, we kept close to the people here. Piero Pierattoni, who is the owner of Mamma Gina restaurant and Piero Pizzavino, he was sick years before so I was happy to see him recovering. I dedicated the title to him. He took care of us like every other year. I was happy. I felt like my career got like that last thing that was missing, that one big title... It was a beautiful moment.
You’ve always done really well at Masters 1000 events, reaching the quarter-finals or better 19 times and at nine different tournaments overall. What do you think it is about these events that brings out your best tennis?
I don’t know, really. I just felt like my game was dangerous for the big players. When I was on top of my game, when I was a Top 5 player, I was doing well, which was a logical thing to happen. But also when I was not ranked really high – I was injured in 2008, and in 2009 my ranking dropped – I got a wild card which was really nice from the Madrid tournament and Monte-Carlo, and I made those quarters. Even being ranked outside the Top 250, I still managed to get good results.
I think maybe you need to ask other players, but I don’t think anyone really liked to play against me because of my game style and my big serve, and trying to play the way it made my opponents very uncomfortable. I think that’s part of the reasons why I had the success at the Masters 1000… For me it was easier best of three sets to make an upset, so that’s probably the main reason why I had better results at the Masters 1000s than at the Slams.
What are your memories of your first Masters 1000 tournament, when you beat Yevgeny Kafelnikov?
It was the breakthrough of my career. That tournament was special for me. I lived there 2-3 years before beating these guys. I was living in Monaco already as a junior because my coach was based in Monaco. I remember going to that tournament in 1999. I was not accepted into the qualifications. My ranking was not good enough, but I signed in as an alternate. [Nicolas] Escude didn’t show up so that’s how I got my spot into the qualies. I beat [Agustin] Calleri and [Andrey] Cherkasov to qualify, and then beat [Andrei] Medvedev first round and Kafelnikov second round.
'99 was the last year of bonus points, so when you beat top guys you got extra [Emirates ATP Rankings] points, and it helped my case a lot... Those bonus points helped my breakthrough in a big way, so it remained a special place for me. That’s why I decided to retire in Monte-Carlo so I could have my last centre court appearance and really get the most out of it. One of my nicest moments of my career was the standing ovation I got from my fellow players at the famous player party in Monte-Carlo, when I announced that was my last tournament. That place is special for me, and I still live there, so that’s how special it is.
Out of your many memorable Masters 1000 wins, does a particular one stand out?
I cannot pick one. It has to be Rafa here the year I won; Novak, as well, and Andy – so that’s three in one year. Kafelnikov was No. 1 the Monday after I beat him in Monte-Carlo, so that was just huge. [I beat David] Nalbandian in the Madrid semis before facing Rafa; that was quite big.
I don’t even know how many Top 10 guys I beat in Masters 1000 history, but each one is just special. If you look at my three finals that I lost, the one that’s in Miami against Roger, it was three tie-breaks. The one that was against Rafa in Madrid was 7-6 in the fifth, which was epic. Bercy against Tomas Berdych it was 6-4 in the fifth. They’re all special in my memory, in my mind, even those that I lost because just to get to the final it’s super difficult, and I actually had the chance to win each one of them. To end up finally winning one when probably nobody expected it, it made it just special.
What do you consider to be the most challenging aspect of Masters 1000 tournaments?
The thing about Masters 1000 is that if you go deep, you always play epic matches, you always play the best guys… The draw is smaller than the Slams, most of the times, so it’s cramped, you don’t get easy matches at all. If you’re ranked outside the Top 10, you have to beat at least three Top 10s to win. I read that of the past 81 Masters 1000, 71 of them were won by the top four guys, so this shows you how difficult it is to actually do it, not being one of them.
Who do you think is the toughest competitor in Masters 1000 history?
You have to look at the three guys that are still playing, which are Roger, Rafa and Novak. But the fact is that history it’s a little bit difficult to judge because back in the day Masters 1000s were not mandatory events, so the players would make their schedule differently… It’s difficult to compare, but the generation we have now, it’s just brutal. The guys are so consistent that it makes it even more difficult for outsiders to go deep and to actually try to win it.