One of the most quotable people in tennis, Ivan Ljubicic has rarely been quoted in recent years, preferring to focus his communication skills on his coaching duties with his old friend and rival-turned-employer: Roger Federer.
Ljubicic, a towering 43-year-old Croatian, and Federer, the 41-year-old Swiss superstar, have known each other since they were teenagers playing minor league professional tennis on the satellite tour. They soon developed a solid report.
“Sometimes you just click and we just click,” Ljubicic said.
Although Federer beat him 13 times in 16 matches on the main tour, they became close friends, as did their wives. When Federer parted ways with Stefan Edberg, one of his coaches, at the end of the 2015 season, Federer asked the retired Ljubicic to fill the vacant position alongside veteran coach Severin Lüthi.
“I mean, what kind of hesitation can you have there?” Ljubicic said in an interview from London on Thursday. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
At the time, Federer was 34 years old, older than Ljubicic had been when he retired at 33, very tired of the daily drudgery required to keep his aching body operational enough for professional tennis. Federer also hadn’t won a major title in over three years, but Ljubicic was convinced he had more in him.
He was proven right when Federer returned from knee surgery and rehabilitation in 2017 and went on to win the Australian Open and Wimbledon that year and added a 20th Grand Slam singles title at the 2018 Australian Open, making him helped return to No. 1 at the advanced tennis age of 36.
“Those two years were incredible,” Ljubicic said. “The fact that he was No. 1 in the world at that stage in ’18 was something that we never thought of the wildest dream that would be possible, because it was never a goal. Because being No. 1 you have to play a lot and win a lot, and our plan was to aim for the biggest tournaments, and he really hit the ground running.”
But the momentum came to a halt when Novak Djokovic pulled back from his prolonged tailspin in 2018. The following year, Federer, again in brilliant form on grass, had two match points against Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon final and did not win. he was unable to convert, losing in five sets. It was a brutally abrupt plot twist for a man on the brink of his greatest achievement, but Ljubicic said Federer and his team handled it philosophically.
“Obviously it’s something that hurts,” Ljubicic said. “Personally, to this day I still can’t believe how he didn’t win that match. Not just for match points, but for the entire match. He was playing very well and could have won all the sets he lost in that final. But honestly, I think much more often about 2017. For me, comparing, the emotions of happiness in 2017 are much greater than the disappointment of 2019. And in a career like this when you play more than 1,500 games, obviously everything happens ”.
That race is about to end now. Federer has confirmed that he will play his last competitive match on Friday night at the Laver Cup, alongside his rival and friend Rafael Nadal in a doubles match for Team Europe.
Ljubicic has made the trip to London from his base in Monaco for the occasion. It will be Federer’s first match in over a year: since losing in straight sets in the 2021 Wimbledon quarterfinals to Hubert Hurkacz with a right knee ailment that would eventually require further surgery and ultimately end Federer’s career. Federer.
The past three seasons have been filled with pain, frustration and forced breaks from play that have tested even Federer’s love of the sport. “It was difficult, because he was never 100 percent, even when he was playing,” Ljubicic said.
“That was unfortunate, and now looking back, he made it to the Wimbledon quarters in 2021, and maybe people couldn’t see what was wrong, but for us who spent days and hours on the court, we could see that we never practiced. . completely. So, it was difficult, and the decision to do another surgery, we knew it was going into the unknown, and unfortunately it turned out to be the last Wimbledon and in that last set against Hurkacz, it really wasn’t there,” he said. additional. “But what can you do? It is what it is, and we are definitely celebrating now again in London, celebrating an amazing race.”
Only one more game to go. “It’s not going to be easy, I assure you,” Ljubicic said with a laugh. “He is hitting the ball well, I can assure you of that. So in that sense, I’m not worried. He will be well. He is more on the emotional side.”