Clear focus, judicious schedule part of Ljubicic's plan to resurrect career
Ivan Ljubicic, once an inextricable face in the top 10, now finds himself in unfamiliar territory. Hampered by fatigue and other various maladies, he has painfully slipped down the rankings ladder. The Croat, however, vows to return to the upper echelon once again.
No stranger to the elite Masters Cup in recent seasons, Ljubicic -- who, like several of his younger peers, grew up in the former Yugoslavia and honed his tennis game elsewhere when war broke out -- sits at his lowest ranking in four years and may slide further if he doesn't go deep at this week's Zagreb Indoors, one of two top-tier events in the country he calls home, Croatia.
Less than 24 months after reaching a career-high ranking of No. 3, the bareheaded and huge-serving Ljubicic is down to 25th. He began the new season with a semifinal showing in Doha, was knocked out by improving Dutchman Robin Haase in the opening round of the Australian Open, claimed a challenger in South Africa, then lost in the first round at Rotterdam to Czech enigma Tomas Berdych.
"I'd like to come back to the top 10,'' said Ljubicic, who turns 29 in a few weeks. "Of course, when you're No. 3, 5, 6 in the world and you drop back to 20, it looks really weak. But I'm really looking forward to seeing how good I can be again. I'm full of motivation.''
Fit for most of his pro career, Ljubicic was hampered by health problems in the second half of 2007. A run-in with kidney stones meant he couldn't make his Davis Cup farewell against Great Britain on the hallowed turf at Wimbledon in September, with a knee problem also taking its toll.
Probably as a result, he went a mediocre 4-4 during the European indoor season, when he usually piles up wins -- and aces. Five of his eight career titles have come indoors, and no one registered more victories with the roof closed than Ljubicic in 2005 and 2006.
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"I was also a bit tired at the end of the season because the last three or four seasons were all one after another without really any break, so I think it just came together at the end of last year,'' he said. "The last three or four seasons I was playing between 24-27 tournaments a year.''
He wasn't fatigued enough to take his usual extended vacation in the offseason, but he still plans to reduce his workload to between 19 and 21 tournaments in 2008.
"I'm trying to really focus on quality, not quantity,'' he said.
Despite some prolific years, Ljubicic has reached a solitary Slam semifinal (at the French Open, perhaps surprisingly, in 2006). He has advanced past the third round twice in 34 attempts. In Masters Series finals, he's 0-for-3.
Longtime coach Riccardo Piatti, always a picture of calm in the stands, says his pupil has some unfinished business. They teamed up in 1997.
"He's physically strong, and if he has good motivation, what I would expect is that he does well in one big tournament,'' said the Italian, adding that some subtle adjustments made to Ljubicic's Head racket would help matters. "We had some goals, to win a tournament, make the Masters, win the Davis Cup, and he won a medal at the Olympics. One goal was to play very well in a Grand Slam. He made one semi, but for me it's not enough.''
"I have some points to defend in [Masters Series tournaments] Indian Wells and Miami," Ljubicic said, "but after that, not really much -- so everything I'm going to do after that is a plus, no pressure at all."
Unsurprisingly, the serve numbers play a key role. He won 79 percent of points on his first delivery in both 2006 and 2007, putting him first and third on tour, respectively. Heading into Zagreb, the number stood at 75 percent, a small, perhaps significant difference. He was outside the top 100 in return games captured.
As Ljubicic pointed out when the stats were brought to his attention, the 2008 campaign is still in its infancy. However, Piatti acknowledged that Ljubicic needs to be more aggressive on return games. In a 6-4, 7-6 second-round win over 509th-ranked countryman Lovro Zovko on Wednesday, Ljubicic broke just once. He won 43 percent of points on Zovko's second serve, though he didn't drop a point on his own first serve in the entire second set.
"If you're talking about my serve, that's definitely the most important part of my game, and that has to work,'' said Ljubicic, who was beaten by Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis in last season's Zagreb final. "Many times it happened that when my serve was working, everything else just came together, and it was the other way around when I struggled with my serve.''
Despite the slight downturn, Ljubicic never thought of parting company with Piatti, who has worked with a slew of Italian players and newly crowned Australian Open champ Novak Djokovic. Piatti was Ljubicic's best man at his wedding four years ago and is noted for building strong relationships with his players. Russian pro Igor Kunitsyn even used to cook with Piatti's mom at her apartment.
"He knows me the best,'' Ljubicic said. "He knows a lot about my game. I feel it would be stupid to change the coach now and lose time to someone who has to learn about me and the way I like things, and the things I need on court. We have a real close relationship, not only tennis-wise.''
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.