Ljubicic knows beating Federer no easy task

Updated: March 31, 2006, 10:34 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- If only tennis worked on strictly mathematical principles.

AP Photo/Lynne SladkyIvan Ljubicic is off to his best start as a pro at 25-3.

Ivan Ljubicic crushed David Nalbandian in Friday's Nasdaq-100 Open semifinal. Nalbandian is one of only a few players to beat Roger Federer in the last year, thwarting the near-untouchable world No. 1 in the 2005 ATP season-ending championships. Ergo, Ljubicic should beat Federer in Sunday's final, or at least give him a hard time, right?

The lanky Croatian is savvy enough to know it's not that simple for him or anyone else on the men's tour these days.

"That's one thing we all have in common," the 6th-ranked Ljubicic said Friday after securing his place in Sunday's Nasdaq-100 final against Federer with a 6-1, 6-2 mauling of No. 3 Nalbandian that ended with a 141-mph dagger of an ace. "We play tennis and then we play against Roger and we lose. Everyone feels the same except Roger."

The candid, personable Ljubicic, who is playing the best tennis of his career at age 27, drew laughter from reporters. But while Ljubicic knows it may be futile to try to throw Federer off course, he's bent on sticking to his own compass readings.

Ljubicic is 3-9 against Federer lifetime and has not beaten him since 2003, though he has forced him to at least one tiebreak in four of their last five matches. His last loss came in straight sets in the quarterfinals at Indian Wells earlier this month.

"I was trying a little bit too hard," Ljubicic said. "I went for some shots that I'm usually not going for. I found myself a little bit uncomfortable in some areas. If he's better, he's better, which he's probably gonna be. But I just want to keep my game plan and not go left-to-right, not go for too much.

"Every time when I have to play against him, it's like, 'Okay, maybe this is the one.' But it's never happening. A couple times I was very close. I really hope to be at least close on Sunday."

Federer, who dismissed No. 11 David Ferrer of Spain 6-1, 6-4 in the other semifinal, said he expects to be tested Sunday.

"I played a fantastic match in Indian Wells to dominate him," Federer said. "So if I could do the same, that would be great."

Ljubicic has become increasingly adept at melding athleticism and technique in a potent combination similar to Federer's, although Federer drew some distinctions.

That's one thing we all have in common ... We play tennis and then we play against Roger and we lose. Everyone feels the same except Roger.
Ivan Ljubicic
"We both obviously have one-handed backhands, so we use our slices very much," Federer said. "We both play from the baseline. But again, I have to rely on more speed, I think court speed, where he has maybe more of the serve."

Ljubicic's 25-3 match record this season is second-best only to Federer's 27-1, and he will climb at least one rung in the rankings to No. 5 next week, equaling his career best. Beating Federer Sunday would put him at No. 4.

His success thus far in 2006 continues the momentum Ljubicic established last year when he was one of the most improved players on the men's tour. He won 20 more matches than he had the year before and led Croatia to the Davis Cup championship, winning 11 of 12 singles and doubles matches for the best record since John McEnroe in 1982.

"Even Roger Federer never won Davis Cup, so it's really something special, something that gives you confidence when you go out there and you look at the other opponent and you feel like you have something more than the other guys do," Ljubicic said.

He also won a silver medal in doubles at the 2004 Olympic Games, an accomplishment he describes as pivotal.

Ljubicic has added ATP titles in Croatia and India so far this season to bring his career total to five. Yet, he hasn't fared particularly well in Grand Slam events and reached a quarterfinal for the first time in this year's Australian Open, losing to eventual finalist Marcos Baghdatis.

After defeating Nalbandian Friday, Ljubicic said his chief goal this season is to reach the ATP year-end championships in Shanghai again. He was eliminated in his first trip there last year by back-to-back losses to Federer -- though he pushed him to a third-set tiebreak -- and eventual winner Nalbandian.

Ljubicic was born in Bosnia but fled to a refugee camp in Croatia at age 13 during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Several months later, he and other children affected by the war were invited to a special camp in northern Italy, where he developed his tennis skills.

His on-court style may resemble Federer's, but off the court, Ljubicic is more like his mentor and fellow Croat Goran Ivanisevic -- plain-spoken and unafraid to voice strong opinions, debunk hyperbole or crack wise.

He told a roomful of reporters at the 2003 U.S. Open that Andy Roddick was widely disliked for his showmanship during matches -- a statement that prompted a wee-hours phone call from Roddick.

Last year, Ljubicic was asked whether getting married in 2004 had settled him and helped boost his play. Other athletes might have gone with the cliché answer, but not Ljubicic. "I cannot say it's a big deal actually, because me and my wife, we stay together for more than eight years before getting married," he said.

On another occasion a reporter asked Ljubicic why Croatia seemed to produce so many good athletes. "It's not like there is a lot to do in Croatia," he said. "You have to play something."

At last year's Nasdaq-100, the joke was on Ljubicic when he opened his locker one morning and found French prankster Michael Llodra crammed inside, stark naked. There have been no such surprises this year. "It definitely keeps you more focused," Ljubicic said.

Freelance writer Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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