Former war refugee Ljubicic keeps a healthy perspective on Tour life

Having fled Bosnia as a child, the highly respected Croat will not be overawed at facing Andy Murray today
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The Independent Online

Ivan Ljubicic is as fierce a competitor as the next player but if the 32-year-old Croat leaves Centre Court a beaten man after his third-round meeting with Andy Murray at Wimbledon this afternoon you can be sure he will retain his sense of perspective. "Of course I want to win every match I play because that's my job," he once said. "But whether I lose a tennis match or not really doesn't matter."

Ljubicic, one of the most popular and highly respected players on the tour, speaks as someone who fled a civil war, spent weeks not knowing whether his father was alive and arrived at the club that was to shape his career with holes in the soles of his shoes.

Nineteen years ago Ljubicic and his family were living in the Serbian-dominated part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. With the Balkan War escalating, most of their fellow Croats had already fled by the time Ivan's father put his two sons and wife on one of the last flights out of Banja Luka.

"My parents felt our lives were in danger," Ljubicic said. "Day after day they knew of many people who simply disappeared. It was really dangerous, though I wasn't aware of it as a kid. When I look back on it I realise there were a lot of people I knew personally who I just never saw again. They disappeared.

"The original idea was to leave for a couple of months, hope the situation would improve and come back. We were one of the last families to leave. A lot of the routes out of Bosnia were blocked.

"My father used some contacts to buy three plane tickets to Belgrade. Adult men couldn't leave. We then went by bus all around Hungary to Slovenia and finally to a refugee camp in Croatia. It took 48 hours.

"We didn't know what had happened to my father for six months. We couldn't even get through to him on the phone. He eventually called in November that year to say he'd been able to escape. He'd loaded everything he could from our house into a small car."

The family settled in the Croatian city of Rijeka, though Ivan was on the move again 12 months later. A tennis club in Moncalieri, near Turin, opened its doors to young Croatian refugees and invited 14-year-old Ljubicic to live and train there. He caught the eye of Riccardo Piatti, a coach who was working at the time with a group of Italian players and has since guided Ljubicic throughout his professional career.

"It was the turning point of my life," Ljubicic said. "It was a very tough time for all of us, but my parents decided that this would be the best thing for me. I really enjoyed tennis and financially it was good for us as a family because my parents didn't have to pay to keep me there, whereas I would have been an expense for them back in Rijeka.

"I loved the tennis, though it wasn't easy for me. I wasn't allowed home for the first three months. When you're 14 you miss your parents. And before 1992 the furthest I'd ever travelled was to Belgrade."

In the early days of his professional career Ljubicic sought guidance from his fellow countryman, Goran Ivanisevic. He recalled being at a tournament in Gstaad when Ivanisevic won Wimbledon in 2001 and "cried like a baby" as he watched on television. An hour later Ljubicic went out and thrashed his next opponent 6-2, 6-1. "I felt inspired," he said. "I was flying. Anybody on the other side of the net that day wouldn't have had a chance against me." The opponent was Roger Federer.

Five years later, on the eve of another meeting with Federer, this time in the final of the Miami Masters, Ljubicic was advised by Ivanisevic to "sleep on the same pillow and keep the window closed". Ten years previously Ivanisevic had woken up with a stiff neck and pulled out of his Miami final against Andre Agassi.

Ljubicic is a former president of the Association of Tennis Professionals' player council and was the first active player for 15 years to serve on the main ATP board. He is one who clearly believes in giving back: he won the ATP's Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year award for his off-court work with the Special Olympics and supports children's charities in Croatia.

Leading his country to their first Davis Cup victory six years ago remains one of the current world No 33's proudest moments. Although he has won 10 titles and reached No 3 in the world rankings, he has a moderate record in Grand Slam events: just one semi-final and one quarter-final.

Not that Ljubicic would ever complain about his lot. "Compared with what happened before, with what my parents had to go through, everything for me is easy and I'm very fortunate," he said.