The Croatian who helped the Swiss

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2013 was a year Roger Federer would want to forget. The Swiss was struggling with form and murmurs had begun wherein people questioned whether it was the end of the road for him. But a few months later Federer’s childhood hero, Stefan Edberg, a serve and volley master came to his rescue. Federer hired him with the hope that his career might get rejuvenated.
The results were fruitful for the following couple of years. Federer started winning titles again and he managed to reach three grand slam finals. The partnership was a successful one. Despite the blossoming of Federer once again, many still questioned if Federer had what it takes to win another slam, a record 18th grand slam. Under Edberg, Federer looked to refine and polish his serve and volley skills, learned the art of reading the opponent’s serve better and kept the points shorter in order to save his energy. Though, Federer’s single handed backhand still produced errors just like they did before. A majority of his points came from shorter rallies and he was often the second best in a match where the opponent was a baseliner.
After a successful partnership whose main feature included re-energizing Federer for a further stretch to the twilight of his career, Stefan Edberg bid goodbye to the Federer team.
‘I thought Federer would have won a Grand Slam under my guidance’ – Stefan Edberg
 
2016, a new year, a new season. There was a 6-foot 4-inch man whom Federer had played 16 times and had lost only thrice against. Federer was a close friend of this man and had once tagged him as “very bright and a natural leader.” This friend of Federer’s had served on the ATP Board of Directors, something which no other active player had done in the past 20 years. He was a former world No.3 but had never won a grand slam. He had already proved his coaching abilities by working with Canadian No.1, Milos Raonic. He helped Raonic reach the semifinals of Wimbledon back in 2014, only to be defeated by Roger Federer in the semifinals. This coach of Milos Raonic was the only guy who had beaten Federer in Basel and Gstaad when he was an active player. You guessed it right, it was the man Croatia, Ivan Ljubicic.
During the Balkan Wars, many families were transported to safer zones via a cargo plane. A bus then took those families from Hungary to Slovenia, ultimately halting at Croatia. The Ljubicic family settled there and a young boy named Ivan took up the tennis racquet and led his nation to Davis Cup glory a few years later. Ivan Ljubicic, former World No.3, former coach to Milos Raonic, a former semi-finalist at the Roland Garros was looking for a new venture.
After realising that the Federer-Edberg split was bound to happen and that the partnership with Milos was in its terminating stages, Ljubicic knew whom he had to contact.
With Ivan, it was really at the end of the year. I have a great team around me. Yeah, that’s when Ivan told me that with Milos it’s not going to continue. I said, So you would be available? I’m checking other options, too. But are you interested at all?
He said, Yeah, I would love to do it, so let me know.

I went through the process. At the end I called Ivan up and asked him then. He was very excited. So that was the process more or less.

– Roger Federer

And so it was decided, Ivan Ljubicic who had never won a grand slam will replace Stefan Edberg, a 6-time grand slam champion, and Federer’s childhood hero in the Federer camp. It was an uphill task for the Croatian. Either he had to maintain Federer’s current level or he had to try something new and effective in order to improve Federer’s gameplay. Age was yet another thing catching up with Federer. Ljubicic needed to assess this factor in formulating his strategy.
As a player himself, Ljubicic was primarily a baseliner. He was not known for his serve and volleys but was prolific from the back of the court. Federer already had the serve and volley skills in his basket. Ljubicic knew to fill that basket with something new. While making a bath for his children, Federer had an uninvited jerk in his knee, a chronic one. He had to skip Roland Garros and subsequently the entire clay season.
When Wimbledon arrived, Federer made it to the semis again. Milos Raonic was down two sets. Ivan Ljubicic was a spectator to his former and current students. Midway through the match, Federer tumbled and took his worst fall on the Center Court. It was the knee againt. Laying down, on his stomach, hands folded, head down and resting on his hands. Federer was down and soon out. He lost the match.
“I always believe there’s new things you can learn, but there’s always sometimes a way of staying motivated, staying hungry. Someone like Ivan can also help do that.” – Roger Federer
The news came in that Federer had decided to end his 2016 season. A six-month hiatus. Murmurs began again. Will Federer retire? Can his body hold on for a few more years? Many counted him out, but he held on. Six months later, people realized, the Federer story was far from over. As a preparation for the Australian Open, Federer decided to play the Hopman Cup alongside Belinda Bencic. He played three singles matches. He won two of them against Richard Gasquet and Dan Evans and lost the one against Alexander Zverev.
When the Australian Open came people were glad to see the Swiss Maestro back on his feet. Serving faster and sprinting across the court. The most notable change in Federer was his baseline game and the single handed backhand. He was stronger from the baseline and the backhand was barely producing any errors. A perfect game against Thomas Berdych in the first week made Federer a contender for the title again. The maestro was back, the critics were silent. The fans were ecstatic and the partnership was working.
“I would be happy if he wins the title (laughs).On the other hand, for what does he play? He is not a junior player who says ‘I reach the quarter-finals and I earn points in the rankings’. He is Roger Federer and hasn’t forgotten how to play tennis.” – Ivan Ljubicic
The final day arrived and Federer was to play against his archival, the Spanish bull, Rafael Nadal. Yet another grand slam final between the duo. It doesn’t take rocket science to decode that Federer has always struggled against Rafa. This had to be Ivan Ljubicic’s biggest test. Ever since their early days, it was a battle between Federer’s single handed backhand and Rafa’s buggy-whip forehand. Arguably, Rafa dominated their rivalry.
A fifth set was imposed, down a break, Federer was at the jaws of defeat. But the Maestro wasn’t the one to give up. If the critics had not realised that yet, they will be in for another crisp reply soon.  Several rallies from the baseline helped Roger break back Rafa. Yes, that’s right, Ivan enabled Federer to dominate baseline rallies against Rafa. Moments later the Swiss served for the Championship and minutes later he held high the Norman Brookes Challenger Cup. The dream was realized, Federer had won the 18th. The dream continues.
It was not a one-time thing which many believed. Ljubicic had indeed taken Federer’s game to a new level in those 6 months. Federer kept up his form by winning the Sunshine double by defeating fellowman Stan Wawrinka and Rafa Nadal once again. He now has won four times against Rafa Nadal in succession.
Yet again, Federer decided to skip the clay season as a precaution for his knee. In Stuttgart, when he came back, he was defeated by his old friend Tommy Haas in the first round itself. It was Federer’s second loss of the season after Evgeny Donskoy in Dubai. Federer and Ljubicic got back to work again. It was the first time in over a decade that Federer lost a first round match on grass.
Enter Halle. A tournament which Federer had won 8 times previously and was now aiming for a record 9th time. Without dropping a set Federer raced to the finals. He was up against Alexander Zverev, the young German on the rise who had defeated Federer in Halle last year in the semifinals. The grass is a faster turf and Zverev is a young gun whose groundstroke speeds are astonishing. Doubts arose over Federer’s chances. But they were soon put to rest. In his second consecutive final at Halle, Zverev was victim to one of the Federer’s vintage performances. The 9th title at Halle and the 92nd title overall was won by Federer. It was a perfect preparation for the Wimbledon.
Just a few days remain before The Championships begins. Federer has referred the Center Court to his home. He along with Pete Sampras has won this prestigious tournament on a record 7 occasions. With Andy Murray facing an injury scare, Novak Djokovic ready to seat himself on grass comfortably at Eastbourne and Rafa Nadal taking a well-deserved rest after the clay season, Roger Federer has barriers to overcome in order to claim his eighth Wimbledon title and a record 19th grand slam.
Ivan Ljubicic’s valiant efforts have helped Roger Federer to rise back to the Top 5 rankings and he has begun lifting trophies again. With Wimbledon being his most favored tournament, Roger Federer will hope that Ivan Ljubicic continues to help him regain his old magic.
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Hello tennis lovers, I am Balraj Shukla from Ahmedabad, India. My love for the sport is directed not only by viewing the current scenario but by tracing the steps back to the roots of the game we call Tennis. Upon reading my content I hope you further widen your perspective of the game by knowing things out of the box. Twitter and Facebook links mentioned will help you in contacting me for healthy discussions, questions, and analysis.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Hi Balraj, a correction in the article. If Fed wins Wimbledon 2017, it would be his 8th Wimbledon and not the 9th(2nd last paragraph, last line). Rest, a nice article.

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