Ivan Ljubicic: the war child

Whatever happens in his burgeoning tennis career, Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic knows it cannot match the stress and drama of his upbringing - when he was forced to flee his homeland at the age of 13. He told his remarkable story to Paul Newman
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Other leading players might have a complex about the spaces in their trophy cupboard or their non-celebrity status, but not Ivan Ljubicic. Having been forced by civil war to flee his homeland and live in a refugee camp, spending weeks not knowing whether his father was alive, the 27-year-old Croat keeps an understandably level head about his career.

"Compared with what happened before, with what my parents had to go through, everything for me is easy and I'm very fortunate," Ljubicic said. "Of course I want to win every match I play because that's my job, but whether I lose a tennis match or not really doesn't matter."

A sense of perspective, however, should not be confused with any lack of ambition, for Ljubicic is now reaping the reward of years of hard work. He crowned an exceptional 2005 by reaching the Tennis Masters Cup and inspiring Croatia to victory in the Davis Cup with a record 11 wins in his 12 live rubbers. He then reached the Australian Open last eight and was this year's second most successful player behind the world No 1, Roger Federer, until Rafael Nadal resumed his clay-court supremacy. By last month he was world No 3, though he has slipped a place while struggling to adapt to clay.

The struggle that preoccupied the Ljubicic family 14 years ago, as Croats living in the Serbian-dominated part of Bosnia, was one of sheer survival. With the Balkan War escalating, most Croats had already fled by the time Ivan's father put his two sons and wife on one of the last flights to leave Banja Luka.

"My parents felt our lives were in danger," Ljubicic explained. "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 Ljubicics arranged a house swap with a Serbian family in the Croat city of Rijeka who wanted to return to Banja Luka. It meant exchanging their large house and a substantial plot of land for a small apartment, but at least they could start to rebuild their lives.

Within 12 months Ivan was on the move again. An Italian tennis club offered to accommodate a group of young Croat refugees, including Ljubicic, who had already represented his country as a junior.

"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.

"I'd never thought about being a professional tennis player. The idea was simply to go and do something healthy in a safe environment. Even by 16 I'd barely won any important matches."

While he has been ranked in the world's top 100 since 1999, it has been only in the last 12 months that Ljubicic's booming serve and formidable groundstrokes have established him firmly in the top 10. He secured only the second tournament victory of his career last October. He has since won three more and reached three Masters series finals. Though he has had the misfortune to meet - and lose to - Federer seven times in 18 months, he ran the world No 1 close in their most recent meeting, losing 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 in last month's Miami final.

"Everybody's different," Ljubicic said. "Some players reach their peak early. I'm 27 and feel I'm still improving. The turning point for me was definitely the 2004 Olympics. Winning the bronze medal [with Mario Ancic in the doubles] gave me huge confidence. Everything started to roll after that.

"It feels different when I walk on court these days. I've come to realise how good I can be. I've never felt as motivated as I have over the last few months.

"When I play well I see the effect it has on them. When that happened before you could see they were thinking: 'OK. This can't last for long.' Now when I play well I can sometimes see that my opponent feels intimidated."

Coming from Croatia has helped. "People from small countries are sometimes hungrier for success. Look at all the Argentinian players. It's a country with big economic problems and they know they have to win matches in order to survive, to give money to their families. The same is true of a lot of the girls from Russia.

"It's a question of motivation, of what you have to give up in order to become a really good tennis player. In matches where it's 5-5 in the final set it's often the guy who wants to win it the most who will do so. I think that's why countries like Italy struggle to produce top players. The kids have everything. They don't want to leave their families to go and become professional tennis players."

Is the same true of British tennis? "It could be," he smiles diplomatically.

Ljubicic also gives credit to Salvador Sosa, his fitness coach. "Before I started working with him two years ago I was able to beat the best players but I couldn't put four or five good matches together. I felt it was partly a physical thing. I'd get tired."

That may also explain why Ljubicic has failed to make an impact in Grand Slams, with matches over five sets. "When you don't do well at the Grand Slams over a period of seven years you can't not feel it, but in Australia this year I got to the quarter-finals and I felt I deserved better," he said.

"When I went to Australia I said to everybody that this time it felt different. Now I go into a tournament thinking that getting into the quarter-finals is normal."

Confidence is the key. Ljubicic said: "I remember going into the locker-room at Wimbledon last year and Lleyton Hewitt was talking to his coach about the seedings. Lleyton was No 2 in the world but he was seeded No 3 and seeded to play Roger Federer in the semis. He didn't feel it was fair, because it wasn't as though he'd never done well on grass. I remember thinking: 'What amazing confidence. The only guy he's worried about is Roger.' And that's the way it ended up for him: he lost to Roger in the semis.

"I'm just starting to think the same way. I'm thinking about the one or two guys who might beat me. Every tournament I play now I think about winning it."

Hard courts - as at the Australian and US Opens - are Ljubicic's favourite surface, but he also fancies his chances at Wimbledon. To that end he has chosen to play at the Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club for the first time, rather than at Halle, where he usually prepares for Wimbledon.

"The courts at Halle are a bit different to the grass courts in England," Ljubicic said. "A lot of the players have told me how fantastic the courts at Queen's are. They say it's almost like playing on a hard court."

In preparing for grass he will no doubt be in contact with his fellow countryman, Goran Ivanisevic. The two men text each other every other day and speak frequently on the phone. Before Ljubicic played Federer in Miami, Ivanisevic advised him to "sleep on the same pillow and keep the window closed" the night before the final; 10 years previously Ivanisevic had woken up with a stiff neck and pulled out of his Miami final against Andre Agassi.

Ljubicic remembers 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? An up-and-coming Swiss by the name of Federer.

The Stella Artois Championships are at the Queen's Club, London, from 12 to 18 June. For more information, visit www.stellaartoistennis.com