Tennis Players Showing Tough Croatian Grit
Following an unexpected Davis Cup victory in 2005 and a successful start to the 2006 campaign, Croatian tennis fans had much to be happy about. Still, we had little to look forward to, at least for the spring clay court season.
Croat tennis players have long been known for their powerful serves and huge ground strokes, a style that greatly contrasts with the loopy shots and baseline speed needed for success on clay. For this reason, not much was to be expected out of the Croats. However, at the 2006 French Open, the foremost clay court tournament in the world, the Croatians went well represented.
Entering Roland Garros 2006, Ivan Ljubicic was not only Croatiaâ€™s #1 ranked tennis player, as he has been since the retirement of legend Goran Ivanisevic, but he was also the 4th-ranked player in the world. Despite his #4 seed at the tournament, â€œLjuboâ€ť was not predicted by many to reach the semifinals- he had historically not done well on clay, as his game is predicated upon his huge serve and power. However, Ivan was granted a friendly draw.
Ljubicic defeated his first round opponent, Carlos Berlocq of Argentina, in dominant straight-set fashion. Through to the second round, Ivan had already advanced further than the previous year, and was then set to face Spaniard Oscar Hernandez. After getting through, 6-3 6-7(7) 6-1 6-2, Ivan was pitted against Argentinaâ€™s Juan Monaco in the third round. Although Monaco is a well-known claycourt specialist, Ivan was still considered the favorite to win the match. However, Ljubicic lost the first two sets and appeared ready to bow out of the tournament. But Ivan fought back, and showing tough Croatian grit, he defeated the Argentinean, delighting his fans. Ivan had rallied from two sets down to win in five, grueling sets, and in doing so, had reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam for only the second time in his career and for the first time at Roland Garros.
Facing another clay court specialist in the fourth round, Ivan next played Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo of Spain, who took out 15th seed David Ferrer in the third round. Ivanâ€™s stellar clay court play continued, as he took out the Spaniard in four sets. Ivan had now reached the quarterfinals of the French Open, where he was set to play another unseeded player, hometown favorite Julien Benneteau. In the quarters, Ivan quickly dispatched of the unheralded Frenchman, 6-2 6-2 6-3. Despite losing to eventual champion Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, Ivan Ljubicic put together an unbelievable two weeks of tennis. He made his nation proud in reaching the semifinals for the first time in his career.
What made this past French Open so amazing was not just the success of the #4 player in the world. It was the simultaneous success of the #12-ranked player in the world and Croatiaâ€™s #2, Mario Ancic. In this French Open, Mario put his name alongside the top names in tennis on a surface on which he had not found much success in the past. Ancic struggled through the first round, but prevailed, defeating Australian Nathan Healey in four sets. Next up was Paul Capdeville of Chile, a solid clay court player, whom Ancic defeated in straight sets. He was later hit with a $3000 fine for getting into a tiny post-match scuffle with the Chilean, which the chair umpire had to break up. Just like last year, Mario was through to the third round of the French Open.
In the third round, Ancic absolutely demolished Albert Montanes of Spain in straight sets, and set up a fourth round encounter with Montanesâ€™ countryman and the #7 player in the world, Tommy Robredo. Robredo had been on an absolute tear during the clay court season, winning the Tennis Masters Series Hamburg and entering the French Open as a threat to take home the trophy. Mario, typically known as a hard court or grass court player, shocked many by taking the first set off of the Spaniard. However, Robredo fired back and took the next two sets in a rather convincing fashion. After the fourth set went in favor of the man from Split, both players fought off cramping and exhaustion in the fifth. After taking a 5-2 lead and squandering it, Mario Ancic finally captured the match, 6-4 4-6 6-2 6-4 7-5, over Tommy Robredo. In doing so, Ancic proved to the world not only that he is a formidable opponent on all surfaces, but that Croatian tennis is here to stay, as our top two players reached the quarterfinals of the
French Open. Although Mario would lose to the #1 player in the world, Roger Federer, in the quarterfinals, his French Open run was one to be remembered.
With his amazing achievement at the 2006 French Open, Mario Ancic vaulted himself to #9 in the world rankings. For the first time in memory, not one, but two Croats are in the top ten of tennis! And it is not that two Croats made the quarterfinals that is so amazing- though it is truly an accomplishment to behold- but it is that two Croats made the quarterfinals of the French Open. On the surface on which we were not supposed to have success, we had the best success we have had since 2001, when Goran Ivanisevic won Wimbledon. And even then there were zero Croatians in the top ten, let alone two.
With last yearâ€™s Davis Cup victory and the still-more-recent World Team Championship triumph, Croatian tennis was at its new zenith. However with the recent results at the French Open, a new pinnacle has been reached. Only better things can be expected at the upcoming Wimbledon Championships, on the surface on which we are supposed to succeed. Thanks to Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic, who made the semifinals and quarterfinals of the French Open respectively, it has never been a better time to be a fan of Croatian tennis.