One of the more quotable people in tennis, Ivan Ljubicic, has very rarely been 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 playing in the minor leagues of professional tennis on the satellite tour. They soon developed a strong rapport.
“Sometimes you just click, and we just clicked,” Ljubicic said.
Though Federer defeated him 13 times in 16 matches on the main tour, they became close friends, as did their wives. When Federer split with Stefan Edberg, one of his coaches, at the end of the 2015 season, Federer asked the retired Ljubicic to fill the vacant slot alongside longtime 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, older than Ljubicic had been when he retired at 33, very weary of the daily drudgery required to keep his aching body operational enough for pro tennis. Federer also had not won a major title in more than three years, but Ljubicic was convinced he had more in him.
He was proved correct when Federer returned from knee surgery and rehabilitation in 2017 and proceeded to win the Australian Open and Wimbledon that year and add a 20th Grand Slam singles title at the 2018 Australian Open, which helped him return to No. 1 at the advanced tennis age of 36.
“Those two years were amazing,” Ljubicic said. “The fact he was No. 1 in the world at that one stage in ’18 was something that we never in the craziest dream thought would be possible, because it was never a goal. Because to be No. 1 you have to play a lot and have to win a lot, and our plan was to aim for the biggest tournaments, and he just started to really roll.”
But the momentum stopped as Novak Djokovic pulled 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 plot twist for a man on the brink of his greatest achievement, but Ljubicic said Federer and his team handled it philosophically.
“It is something obviously that hurts,” Ljubicic said. “Personally, still today I can’t believe how he didn’t win that match. Not only because of the match points but just the whole match. He was playing so well and could have won every set he lost in that final. But honestly, I think a lot more often about 2017. For me comparing, the emotions of ’17’s happiness are much greater than ’19’s disappointment. And in a career like this when you play over 1,500 matches, obviously everything happens.”
That career is just about over now. Federer has confirmed that he will play his final competitive match on Friday night at the Laver Cup, partnering longtime 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 more than a year: since he lost in straight sets in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 2021 to Hubert Hurkacz on an ailing right knee that would eventually require more surgery and ultimately put an end to Federer’s career.
The last three seasons have been full of pain, frustration and forced breaks from the game that tested even Federer’s love for the sport. “It was tough, because he was never 100 percent, even when he played,” Ljubicic said.
“That was unfortunate, and now looking back, he got to the quarters at Wimbledon in 2021, and maybe people couldn’t see what was wrong, but for us, who were spending days and hours on court, we could see we never practiced fully. So, it was hard, and the decision to make another surgery, 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 added. “But what can you do? It is what it is, and we are definitely celebrating now again in London, celebrating an amazing career.”
Just one more match to go. “It’s not going to be easy, I can tell you that,” Ljubicic said with a laugh. “He’s hitting the ball well, that I can tell you. So in that sense, I’m not worried. He’s going to be fine. It’s more on the emotional side.”