It was the big Croat’s only Masters title, and an emotional one garnered at his favourite tournament, the one where each year he celebrated his birthday. That was back in 2010, and made him the oldest man to win a first Masters and the second oldest to win in Indian Wells, at just turned 31.
This year, Ljubicic was at the heart of the action again, but this time in a player’s box, Federer’s box. The two friends—and they are separated by only two and a half years in age—played each other 16 times in the decade running up to that 2010 victory in Indian Wells, and also worked alongside one another on the ATP Players’ Council. However, since the start of last year, the Croat has been coach to Federer.
And auspicious as it may seem that Ljubicic should spend his 38th birthday with Federer at Indian Wells, their partnership certainly had an inauspicious start. Federer would play only five tournaments after the knee surgery that followed his Australian Open semi run last year.
But clearly their association during the Swiss star’s long rehabilitation, training and preparation was fruitful. Federer’s return to immediately win the Australian Open, where he showcased a reformed attacking backhand, was quickly the talk of the tour.
Federer’s aggressive style of tennis had been flourishing, of course, ever since he joined forces with another single-handed serve-and-volley maestro, Stefan Edberg. A new, bigger racket, and a determination to come forward, keep points short, and ‘occupy my opponent’s mind’, as he put it, revitalised the Federer game—and Ljubicic honed the style still further.
‘Playing free’, as he called his approach since making his Grand Slam winning return, the Swiss reached the final in the desert without dropping a set or conceding a break, and faced only one break point—against arch rival Nadal.
Should Federer win his fifth Indian Wells title, he would, at 35, put even his coach in the shade by becoming the oldest man to win any Masters. But there was one formidable hurdle that could thwart this ambition: No3 seed Stan Wawrinka.
And for an example of the impact that a great coaching partnership can have, it is necessary to look no further than Wawrinka’s tie-up with Magnus Norman in 2013.
The 31-year-old Swiss always had the game—a strong serve, a magnificent power-packed and flexible one-handed backhand, and a big forehand—to hold his own against the best, but his results were inconsistent, his confidence uncertain, his place, it seemed, forever in the shadow of his illustrious Swiss colleague.
But Norman was convinced that Wawrinka had the ability to win big, and he was proved right. Prior to their partnership, Stan the Man won four 250 titles in his first seven years. In the subsequent three years, he has won 11, including three Grand Slams, a Masters and three 500s.
In the space of 12 months, he rose from 25 to the top 10, and now looked every inch a champion. Just last month, he came within touching distance of beating Federer in a dramatic five-set semi-final in Melbourne.
That was not their first close battle, either. For although all three of Wawrinka’s wins over Federer had come on clay, the younger Swiss had really grown into his hard-court tennis and, as Federer pointed out ahead of this title match, Wawrinka won the US Open only a few months ago. Even in the desert of Indian Wells, back in 2013, he almost edged Federer, 6-3, 6-7(4), 7-5, and he came even closer to that elusive hard-court win indoors at the O2 the next year, losing the final-set tie-breaker, 7-6(6).
This week, he had come through severe final-set tie-break tests in Round 4 and the quarters, only to sail through his semi against Pablo Carreno Busta in just 64 minutes. And it had become a feature of Wawrinka’s tennis that he found his best in the biggest matches: three Grand Slam finals, three wins; and 11 titles from his last 12 finals.
So, as the oldest final in Indian Wells history got under way, which Swiss would rise to the challenge—and would Ljubicic be celebrating his birthday in style once more?
The first set got off to a blistering start, which became the tone for the entire half hour it took to rocket through 10 games. Neither man was giving an inch on serve: Federer dropped three points on his first serve, Wawrinka only two.
Federer opened, made two backhand winners and a volley, and Wawrinka replied with a couple of 135mph+ serves. Both were glued to the baseline, taking the ball early and on the rise, with the noise off their rackets ricocheting around the arena. Now Federer leapt for a smash dunk winner, now Wawrinka picked up a dropshot for a perfect lob. But if there was a difference between them, it was on second serve.
Federer’s kicking, varied second deliveries are notoriously hard to read, but he in contrast was making headway on Wawrinka’s second serve. A long, probing rally brought up the first break point of the set, and then a long cat-and-mouse exchange, with Federer plying slice and angle to test Wawrinka, got his reward: a forehand hit long. The former champion had the first set, 6-4.
That gave Federer the advantage of serving first in the second, but he quickly handed that advantage to Wawrinka, missing several first serves, and suffering his first break of the tournament.
He almost broke straight back, but could not convert two chances, and Wawrinka was at 2-0. However, come the fourth game, the younger Swiss was rushed into hitting two forehands wide and Federer slotted a forehand pass to break: 2-2.
Federer managed to hold onto serve, though Wawrinka stood well back to take huge cuts on the ball and won a good few points as a result. But once into rallies, both continued to go flat out, catching the lines, giving no ground. A love hold apiece for 5-5 and this had all the makings of a tie-break. Federer briefly looked vulnerable at 30-30, but he held on and, perhaps not relishing the idea of a tie-break, he stepped in, cracked some punishing returns, and edged one more break point.
It was a final point worthy of the title, and encapsulated the type of tennis Federer has brought to court first in Australia and now in Indian Wells: two backhand drives, a penetrating forehand, and into the net for a volley finish, 7-5, after an hour and 20 minutes of blistering tennis.
His hands went aloft, he burst into smiles of relief, and waved at fans and family—in particular his twin daughters who had phones at the ready for their photos.
But for every victor there is a loser, and Wawrinka was close to tears in an emotional speech:
“Sorry I’m just tired after 10 days… I would like to congratulate Roger—he’s laughing, [expletive] but it’s OK.” He smiled as his friend grinned back.
“I lost some tough ones against you, but when you played the final in Australia, I was still your biggest fan, so congratulations for your comeback and congrats for today. Anybody who knows tennis loves to watch you, so it’s always good to see you back at that level, hopefully for many years.”
Federer, too, found it hard to put into words his emotions:
“It’s been a fairytale week. I was very sad when I couldn’t come here last year. Just being here is a beautiful feeling. It’s one of my favourite tournaments. I came here for the first time 17 years ago, so to be here again as the champion is an amazing feeling.”
But of his ambitions for the rest of the year, he added some perspective:
“My goal was to be top eight after Wimbledon—so now I can sit back!”
He is already No6 with a victory that equals Djokovic’s record five titles in the desert. It also happens to be Federer’s 90th career title, and confirms him as the oldest man to win a Masters—his 25th.
So it is indeed a happy birthday for Ljubicic: this one will certainly be worth a toast.
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