Just a couple of days ago I was questioning whether James Blake has any tennis left. The answer was a somewhat qualified No. And last night I watched as Ivan Ljubičić (affectionately nicknamed 'Looby') sent Rafael Nadal packing out of Indian Wells and it did not even occur to me to ask that question. So then I had to ask myself, how come? What is it that I think that Looby has at age 31 that Blake doesn’t at age 30 (other than my utmost respect, of course)?
Clearly age is not the issue. Age is never the issue in my criticism of tennis players. In fact, I tend quite contradictorily to become more supportive of tennis players as they age, especially as the chorus of whispers starts up, demanding that they retire.
For instance, when in 2000 when the ATP launched its offensive and ageist ‘New Balls Please’ campaign, I started a similar campaign in support of Old Farts. Players whom I had routinely ignored until then suddenly became the loves of my life. I launched my own movement in support of a tennis player’s right to retire if and when he or she damn well chose, instead of being hustled out of the game by a bunch of disrespectful young Turks. Then again, when your values have been shaped by Caribbean mores, anything less will seem unethical.
So the fact that Blake is 30 and Ljubicic 31 is completely irrelevant to my dismissal of the former and my total embracing of the latter. Looks also have nothing to do with it. For a start, they both look silly with headbands surrounding a bald pate. But James Blake is a good-looking dude if you can get past his hefty butt. And Ljubicic will probably never be selected to escort Victoria Secret models down a runway. Not with that ragged looking face.
But when it comes to tennis intelligence, Ljubicic could write a book and then some. As a tennis strategist, he could be the master and Blake the student. When Ljubicic loses, it’s never because he doesn’t know how to win, but because his body gives out, either due to fatigue or injury. This is perhaps the main reason why, despite having a lethal serve that has helped to # 3 in the world along with nine ATP titles, Ljubicic has never won a Slam or a Masters event. But he has achieved balance in his life through marriage to longtime girlfriend, Aida, and fatherhood to their son, Leonardo. Having earned over seven million dollars in his career, he is now at the stage where he can play tennis just because he enjoys playing.
So when he beat Djokovic in straight sets (7-5 6-3), I knew that he was a serious contender to make it to the finals of Indian Wells. Granted Djokovic was tired from Davis Cup, but he played a good match. Which meant that Looby then had to get past Juan Monaco and Rafael Nadal.
Monaco has been growing into his game. The era of dirt kings is clearly over. These Argentinean players who grew up inhaling clay have quickly eradicated the stereotype of being dirt-baggers who can’t perform anywhere else. Monaco has game. And when he lost to Looby in three sets, I knew that Nadal could be in trouble, never mind their lop-sided head-to-head (5-1 Nadal-Looby).
The match against Nadal was close - until they got to the tiebreak in the third set. I have never seen Nadal so completely shut out of a tiebreak. I mean he just wasn’t there. Ljubicic won the last seven points, and then took away the last point from Nadal in a brilliant forehand down-the-line which Nadal left wide open. It’s rare to see Nadal get nervous. It’s rare to see him toweling his face even when there is nothing to wipe. It’s rare to see him looking over to his box (where Uncle Toni sat with his face looking down, broadcasting his apparent disapproval). Uncle Toni needs to re-read the manual on PST. This is not how it’s done.
Looby’s box on the other hand were vocal in their support. They had to be. Just about the entire crowd at Indian Wells were rooting for Nadal. They had nothing against Ljubicic . They just wanted the Spaniard to win. They wanted a Nadal-Roddick final. Later today they will have to settle for Looby vs. Roddick. This is the first time that Looby has made it to the finals of Indian Wells. Roddick is coming back injury but is in top shape and has arguably the best tennis coach. May the best man win.