One of the more quotable people in tennis, Ivan Ljubicic has been very rarely quoted in recent years, preferring to focus his communication skills on his coaching duties with his longtime friend and rival-turned-employer: Roger Federer.
Ljubicic, an imposing 43-year-old Croatian, and Federer, the 41-year-old Swiss superstar, have known each other since they were teenagers and played in the minor leagues of professional tennis on the satellite tour. They soon developed a strong relationship.
“Sometimes you just click and we just clicked,” said Ljubicic.
Despite Federer beating 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 spot alongside longtime coach Severin Lüthi.
“I mean, what hesitation can you have?” Ljubicic said in an interview from London on Thursday. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
At the time, Federer was 34, older than Ljubicic when he retired at 33, and very tired from the daily drudgery it took to keep his aching body fit for professional tennis. Federer also hadn’t won a major title in more than three years, but Ljubicic was convinced he had more in him.
He was right as Federer returned from knee surgery and rehabilitation in 2017 and won the Australian Open and Wimbledon that year and added a 20th Grand Slam singles title at the 2018 Australian Open, helping him return to No. 1 in advanced tennis at age 36 .
“Those two years were incredible,” said Ljubicic. “The fact that he was world No. 1 at that one point in 18 was something that we didn’t in the craziest dream think was possible because it was never a goal. Because to be No. 1 you have to play a lot and win a lot and our plan was to aim for the biggest tournaments and it’s just starting to really roll in.”
But the momentum died when Novak Djokovic came out of his extended tailspin in 2018. The following year, Federer, back in sparkling form on grass, had two match points against Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon final and failed to convert, losing in five sets. It was a brutally abrupt turn for a man on the brink of his greatest achievement, but Ljubicic said Federer and his team dealt with it philosophically.
“It’s something that obviously hurts,” said Ljubicic. “Personally, I still can’t believe to this day that he didn’t win that match. Not just because of the match points, but simply because of the whole match. He played so well and could have won every lost set in that final. But to be honest, I think about 2017 a lot more. For me, the happiness of 17 is much bigger than the disappointment of 19. And of course in a career like this, when you play 1,500 games, everything happens.”
That career is now as good as over. Federer has confirmed he will play his last competitive match on Friday night at the Laver Cup, alongside long-time rival and friend Rafael Nadal in a doubles match for Team Europe.
Ljubicic has traveled to London from his base in Monaco for the occasion. It will be Federer’s first match in more than a year: since he lost in straight sets to Hubert Hurkacz in the 2021 Wimbledon quarter-finals to Hubert Hurkacz due to a diseased right knee, it would eventually require another surgery and end Federer’s career for good.
The last three seasons have been filled with pain, frustration and enforced breaks from the game that have tested even Federer’s love of the sport. “It was tough because he was never 100 percent, even when he was playing,” said Ljubicic.
“That was unfortunate and now looking back he got to the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 2021 and maybe people couldn’t see what was wrong but for us, putting days and hours on the pitch, we could see we never practiced fully. So it was tough and the decision to have another operation, we knew he was going into the unknown and unfortunately it turned out to be the last Wimbledon and in that last set against Hurkacz he wasn’t really there,” he said he added. “But what can you do? It is what it is and we’re definitely partying back in London now, celebrating an amazing career.”
Just one more match to go. “It won’t be easy, I can tell you that,” said Ljubicic with a laugh. “He hits the ball well, I can tell you that. In that respect I’m not worried. He will be fine. It’s more on the emotional side.”