More to life than tennis for Ljubicic

Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic reached the French Open quarterfinals Monday for the first time in his career. Regardless of the outcome, Ljubicic is able to keep tennis in its proper perspective, writes Greg Garber.

Updated: June 5, 2006, 6:59 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- Ivan Ljubicic, all 6-foot-4 inches of him, leaned heavily on the net Monday on Court Suzanne Lenglen. Sweat was pouring through the top of his shaved head and his face was well past pink; he was in the midst of a wearying fourth-round match. His firm forehand had kissed the back line, but it had been called out. Patiently, he waited for the chair umpire to recognize this fact.

When he did, there was no emotion, no fist-pumping. Ljubicic ambled back to the baseline to receive the serve of Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo. Ljubicic, perhaps more than anyone in professional game, knows that there is more to life than merely tennis.

"Whether I lose a tennis match or not really doesn't matter," he said before the French Open. "Compared with what happened before, everything for me is easy."

This, he means with all his heart. For the journey has been long and difficult.

Fourteen years ago, when Ljubicic was 13 years old, his family was torn apart by the Balkan War. They were Croatians living in the Serbian part of Bosnia, and the civil war drove father Marko to send Ljubicic, mother Hazira and brother Vlado out of the country. They wound up in a refugee camp in Croatia, but for six months, the status of his father was unknown. People were dying; others just disappeared.

Ivan Ljubicic
AP Photo/Michel EulerFor the second time in as many Grand Slam events in 2006, Ivan Ljubicic has reached the quarterfinals.

Six months later, Marko finally called. Six months after that, Ljubicic was playing tennis full-time after an Italian tennis academy rescued him and some other gifted Croatian refugees.

Today, at the relatively advanced age of 27, Ivan Ljubicic is the No. 4-ranked player in the world. Would you know him walking down the street? Even in Paris, he might go unnoticed; he is the only quarterfinalist here without a formal interview transcript from the past two weeks. He has won only five tournaments in nine years as a professional -- nondescript titles in places such as Chennai, India; Zagreb, Croatia; and Metz, France -- but he has persevered. In fact, he has never been better.

On Monday, Ljubicic methodically pummeled Ramirez Hidalgo, an untested Spaniard, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 in 3 hours, 2 minutes here at Roland Garros to reach the quarterfinals. That matched his previous best Grand Slam performance, a satisfying run back in January at the Australian Open. How strange, because clay is the surface least friendly to Ljubicic's muscular game.

Thus, Ljubicic's casual walk through the draw continues. He will face unseeded Frenchman Julien Benneteau for a spot in the semifinals, hardly an unreasonable task. Ljubicic has yet to face a seeded player, having beaten Carlos Berlocq, Oscar Hernandez and Juan Monaco to reach his rendezvous with Ramirez Hidalgo.

Until last year, Ljubicic was merely a functional player. In a five-year span from 1999 to 2003, he won only nine more singles matches than he lost. But in 2004, he found himself. Teaming with Mario Ancic -- another Croatian in the quarters at Roland Garros -- Ljubicic won a bronze medal at the Olympics in Athens. That victory, he says, went a long way toward proving he could play at this elite level.

In 2005, he reached eight finals, won two tournaments and qualified for the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup. This year, his results have been even better. He lost to eventual finalist Marcos Baghdatis in the Australian quarterfinals and won in Chennai and Zagreb. Ljubicic reached the quarterfinals at Indian Wells, Calif., and Miami, only to lose to world No.1 Roger Federer.

"Whether I lose a tennis match or not really doesn't matter. Compared with what happened before, everything for me is easy."
Ivan Ljubicic

Ljubicic's joy of competing, as his Olympic result suggests, is most obvious when he is playing for his country. In 2005, Ljubicic led Croatia to its first Davis Cup title. He went 11-1 in singles and doubles, narrowly missing John McEnroe's 12-0 mark. In May, he helped Croatia win the World Team Cup, beating James Blake, Fernando Gonzalez and Nicolas Kiefer.

He had played 25 Grand Slams and never advanced past the third round. Now, he has made the quarters in back-to-back events. Only nine players in the Open era who have reached the quarterfinals at a major took more tournaments to reach their first. The next two, Wimbledon and U.S. Open, are even more conducive to his style.

When the final ball had been struck Monday, Ljubicic turned and, with a laconic smile, saluted wife Aida and coach Riccardo Piatti. The way he solemnly approached the net to shake hands with Ramirez Hidalgo, he could have been the loser.

Tennis, like all those new age rackets, is a high-strung sport. There are divas in both locker rooms and an overwhelming sense of privilege. This is not the case with Ljubicic. For so many reasons, he is truly happy to be here.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.