Commentary

The best seat in the house

We can all tell our version of the historic, heart-pounding Wimbledon final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. But this guy had the best seat in the house -- and called the shots.

Updated: January 26, 2009, 10:57 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

Each day at the Australian Open, ESPN.com is tracking the game's brightest stars, providing an inside look at their matches, practices and routines.

Monday, Jan. 26
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Roger Federer is already regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, and Rafael Nadal is on the way. No matter what happens in the future, the titans will go down in history as having played arguably the best match of all time. Nadal downed Federer in July's Wimbledon final in five sets and five hours, with rain delays and darkness intensifying the drama that unfolded on the lawns of the All England Club.

Pascal Maria had the best seat in the house.

If you're wondering who Maria is, then he figures he did a good job that day. Maria served as the chair umpire and, reflecting on the epic in a media garden located a stone's throw away from where officials hang out, made it sound like the encounter unfolded only yesterday.

[+] EnlargeUmpire Pascal Maria
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesIt wasn't your mundane Wimbledon final for chair umpire Pascal Maria, who witnessed one of the great matches in history.
"I remember first of all the tennis because I'm a fan, and having two unbelievably professional players, attitude-wise and tennis-wise," Maria said. "Secondly, I remember my work. In general, I wasn't involved in press clippings or questionable calls, and there's pride there. Like the players, I went through so many different emotions, so many different exciting moments. Every time there was something new going on."

Maria discovered he was calling his first Wimbledon final following the quarters, which is generally the norm. He'd already done three French Open finals and one at the Australian Open, so stage fright wasn't an issue.

Maria turned to umpiring when he couldn't cut it as a player. He had an umpiring mentor close by in Bruno Rebeuh; they were members of the same club. (Rebeuh's Wimbledon memories must be more mixed. He was slapped in the face by the wife of former pro Jeff Tarango during a contentious match in 1995.)

The Wimbledon final indeed passed without much controversy, and Maria made sure he stayed sharp during the rain delays. He refrained from turning on a television or cell phone and avoided perusing the Internet.

"I was staying in the referees' office and speaking to the right people about the right issues," Maria said. "I kept my focus, because I knew that once I got back there, the first point would be very important. You don't want to miss something."

Maria inevitably gets asked what happens when he needs to visit the toilet during a match. The question is brought up again. Maria refrains from drinking high doses of liquid and visits the men's room often pre-match. It usually does the trick. However, during a Wimbledon doubles qualifying tussle that went to 15-15 in the deciding set a few years ago, he couldn't hold it.

"I held it for a long time, but then obviously I couldn't control it," he said. "I called the supervisor to the court and said, 'Look, I have to go.' So he took my spot on the court, not in the chair. I ran to the bathroom, came back, and I think I was more or less in time for play to start."


The tennis elite enjoy a glamorous and surreal lifestyle, jetting around the world and having their every need catered for. A nice life if you can get it. But it seems they have the same dilemmas as normal folk.

Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic and wife Aida pondered long and hard what to call their first child, eventually choosing a distinctly non-Balkan name, Leonardo. He was born Nov. 5, making Ljubicic one of the few dads, at least when it comes to singles players, on the tour. With Lindsay Davenport pregnant for a second time, Austria's Sybille Bammer is the lone mom on the women's circuit.

Other names in contention included Thomas, Fabian and Rio.

"Leonardo was one of our favorite names at the beginning, then we kind of didn't consider it for a while," Ljubicic said with a smile. "Then again it came up. We had to take something quite international, because we travel quite a lot."

Ljubicic, far from the brute suggested by his bald head and 6-foot-4 frame, always wanted to start a family before he turned 30 -- and that happens in March. The timing couldn't have been better; thanks to the offseason, he spent two months bonding with his son. Waiting a year or two was never an option.

If that meant making a few sacrifices, so be it. Ljubicic quit his post as a player representative on the ATP World Tour's Board of Directors this month, about the same time former Nike bigwig Adam Helfant was unveiled as the governing body's new president and executive chairman, replacing the beleaguered Etienne de Villiers.

Ljubicic still harbors ambitions of resurfacing in the top 20. In possession of a huge serve that especially befuddles opponents indoors, he peaked at No. 3 in May 2006 and stood inside the top 20 as recently as last January. He has been outside the top 50 the last three weeks and exited in the second round in Melbourne, victimized in four tight sets by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's gung-ho approach.

"I think family is always going to be a priority for me," said Ljubicic, who fled war-torn Bosnia as a 13-year-old. "I don't think it means I'm going to do something less in tennis because I have a kid, but yes, the board position paid the price and that's something that was my No. 3 priority. When I choose which tournament to play now, it's going to be trying to stay nearby, playing in Europe as much as possible."

Of course, Australia is nowhere near Europe, and Leonardo didn't make the trip Down Under. Ljubicic says he can't wait to get back home to enjoy fatherhood further. And yes, he's changed a few diapers.

The new parents plan to formulate a traveling schedule so Ljubicic and Leonardo won't be separated much, or as little as possible. One thing is for certain, though. They won't be sleeping in the same room. Ljubicic tried that in December and subsequently couldn't practice hard, his energy sapped from waking in the night.

"I'm looking forward to traveling with him, but it's going to be difficult for the baby," Ljubicic said. "I mean, it's going to be difficult no matter what. If he stays home, it's going to be difficult for me not seeing him and him not seeing his father, but if he travels, it's tough. But I believe the kids always need stability, especially in the beginning. It does bring a lot of issues organization-wise, but we'll get through it."


A joy of the Australian Open is taking the tram to the site in southeast Melbourne. The rickety old trams provide a chance to mingle with locals, not just peers, and take in scenery at an almost snail's pace. Oh, it's free for tournament pass holders, which doesn't hurt. Eavesdropping on conversations is free, too.

A humorous one involving a mom and recipient on the other end of a cell phone, centering on elastic Frenchman Gael Monfils, went something like this: "Yeah, you know, he's the lanky one," she began, young son nearby. "The kids like him because it looks like his legs are going to come off when he plays."

It was tongue-in-cheek stuff.

Minutes later, another mom brings up the subject of G-strings. Apparently she's trying to figure out which male tennis player sports one. Novak Djokovic's name pops up in an altogether separate context and a female fan, who couldn't be older than 7 or 8, excitedly blurts out, "He's the one who wears a G-string." Laughter ensued from the back of the tram.

Monfils must have been jinxed. He retired from his fourth-round match against countryman Gilles Simon on Monday due to a right wrist injury.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.