Super Mario battles past virus to make happy return on grass

Last man to beat Federer at SW19 is back after illness almost ended his career
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The Independent Online

When Mario Ancic, in his first Wimbledon, beat Roger Federer on Centre Court he was dubbed Super Mario, a nickname in which he still rejoices. What you would never call Ancic is "Lucky", though, after a year of misery caused by sickness and injury.

This is why the 24-year-old Croatian is anticipating with such relish a return to grass, his favourite, and most successful, surface. He starts with the 30th anniversary Artois Championships at Queen's Club tomorrow, going on to the Dutch event at s'Hertogenbosch, where he has twice lifted the title, and then Wimbledon, where that victory over Federer six years ago remains the last time the Swiss Superman lost a match on the lawns of the All England Club.

In that 2002 season, Ancic was outside the top 100 and had got into Wimbledon as a qualifier. By the end of 2006 he was seventh in the world. "I had worked so hard to get my ranking up and was playing great tennis," Ancic recalled at the French Open last week.

He got to the fourth round, his best showing, at the Australian Open in January 2007 before being stricken for six months by the debilitating virus mononucleosis, or glandular fever. The virus had almost certainly started to affect him in Melbourne, and his next commitment was with Croatia in the Davis Cup against Germany in Krefeld.

"In Germany I was playing while sick, which was definitely a mistake, though I didn't know it at the time," he said. "So it put a big strain on my heart. Added to the mononucleosis, what it meant was that I was close to never playing again."

Ancic was literally flattened by the virus. "In the beginning I could not walk, I was sleeping 18 hours a day. I was completely tired, something which is difficult to explain to anyone who hasn't had this thing. It was not easy, just lying there watching the Grand Slams go by, Paris, Wimbledon, because I like to compete and I am young. There I was, 22 years old and at the peak of my career, and I couldn't even walk." As the virus finally relented, Ancic could contemplate a return to training, and the initial outcome was embarrassing.

"After so many months of lying in bed, when I started my first practice I was only able to work for half an hour. When I was eventually able to start running for 10 minutes twice a week, that was a big step."

Ancic stepped back on to the Tour at the Masters Series event in Montreal last August, but his preparations for the US Open were wrecked when, in one of the gym sessions he was putting himself through to boost fitness, a barbell fell on his shoulder and caused a small bone fracture, or as Mario put it: "The shoulderwas a little bit broken."

Certainly broken enough to necessitate his with-drawal from the US Open and Croatia's Davis Cup tie against Britain at Wimbledon in September. By the end of last year the shoulder was healed and, though his ranking had plummeted to 85, he set off for Australia to prepare for the first Grand Slam of 2008. "My comeback," as he called it. "But I picked up a stomach virus, was throwing up for one-and-a-half months and lost nine kilos. This meant I had missed four Slams in a row, very frustrating."

His comeback was delayed until February, at Marseilles, where he delighted himself by getting to the final before losing to Andy Murray. "Unbelievable" was his reaction, parroting the favourite word of boyhood hero Goran Ivanisevic.

Back up to 46 in the rankings, Ancic feels he is ready for the big push towards his place in the top 10. "Everything is going really well again, but it is not just a matter of pressing a button and everything comes back to you. You have to work hard, but I am happy with the way things are going now."

When Federer suffered from mononucleosis at the start of the 2008 season, he contacted Ancic for advice. "But when we spoke he said he was already feeling better, and he was back playing again by Dubai [in early March], proof that it was a mild version, which was good, because once you are over it there is no way it will come back."

Ancic was beaten by Federer in the third round at Roland Garros, his fifth straight loss to the world No 1 since that memorable Wimbledon win, which however he does not regard as his biggest moment at The Championships.

"As a qualifier, my first time on Centre Court, of course it was a big win, I always say it opened the door for me, but personally it meant much more to reach the semi-finals in 2004, beating Tim Henman on the way, and the quarters in 2006. You can beat anybody on any given day, but to get to the quarters or semis of a Grand Slam you must beat so many great players."

Now the 6ft 6in son of a supermarket-chain owner is poised for the most significant section of his comeback. "I am so much looking forward to the grass and England again, where I have the friendliest connection with people." And where, with some good fortune for a change, they will be hailing Super Mario once more.

Andy Murray, who has a bye in the first round at Queen's, will play either Sébastien Grosjean or a qualifier in the second.