Serbian Novak Djokovic and the big Croat Ivan Ljubicic take to the court Wednesday once more to do battle in the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open ATP Masters 1000 tournament at Indian Wells.
It is the fifth time the two will duel over the net and the second this year, Djokovic coming from a set down to win 2-6, 6-4, 6-0 in Dubai.
In fact, Djokovic has won all four encounters between the two and that first set in Dubai is the only one the bald eagle of Croatia has managed to nip off his younger and more flexible opponent.
I watched match-up number three between these two, the first round of the 2009 US Open in New York. Sitting courtside in the blazing mid-afternoon heat I watched a man many were tipping as favorite dismantle his older foe without too much trouble in straight sets.
I had been talking the match up beforehand citing it as one of the potential big upsets of the early tournament matches. How disappointed I was when play came to fruition. Not so much with Djokovic. His tantalizing service game was too much for a man who often uses that weapon himself. But on this occasion Ljubicic’s serve was abandoning him and nearly every drive and volley was dropping an inch too long.
But it was the controversy with which the match finished that struck me most. With Ljubicic serving at 3-4 a ball dropped questionably close to the outside tramline to hand Djokovic a break and the chance to serve for the match at 5-3. Ljubicic challenged and we all sat with baited breath awaiting the all-seeing Hawkeye’s decision.
Hawkeye was asleep. So the players took up their positions once more to replay the point. “Game Djokovic,” came the booming voice of the umpire over the tannoy. Djokovic wasn’t going to argue and trotted to his seat. But Ljubicic was seething and launched in to an angry protest which lasted a good few minutes.
After the Croat was finally pacified play resumed and Djokovic served out the match.
Interestingly, I noticed that for the rest of the tournament the message “In the event of Hawkeye failing the official’s call will stand” was emblazoned on the big screens during breaks in play. I’m not surprised after that drama.
At 30, time is getting on for Ljubicic and his quest for a Grand Slam is coming to an end. His semi final placing at the 2006 French Open remains his best result and based on his much younger opponents these days I will put my money on it staying that way too.
Djokovic, however, is still desperately trying to add to his 2008 Aussie Open crown. At 22 he is still very young and with time and improvements on minor aspects of his game he will surely do so.
That victory over Ljubicic last autumn was a welcome one for the 6 ft. 2 in. Serb. Having received criticism for his perceived feigning of injury, too many early retirements from matches and a lack of respect shown for opponents through his jibes and impressions on court, he won over a lot of fans with his new more serious on-court demeanour.
“I’m in the transition,” Djokovic had said earlier that year. “It’s not easy because I’m very emotional. Some things really hurt me, and maybe I express myself a little bit too much – people didn’t get used to that. But at the end of the day, you sit and think to yourself, ‘I’ve reacted the way I felt that’s right.’ Maybe it’s wrong, but you learn from your mistakes. That’s why life is testing us all the time.”
It seems the media and crowds may be warming to him again somewhat. And for a player who obviously takes so much to heart that can only help him take his game back to the level which led him to that first Slam two years ago.
If he keeps this run over Ljubicic going then it will be the winner of Guillermo Garcia-Lopez/Juan Monaco in the quarters before a possible semi final against Rafa Nadal.
It’s tough going in modern tennis and only the headstrong survive. Only Novak knows if he has the mental stability to march onwards and upwards and that semi final could see a battle of two men that some corners of the media are already beginning to slate as finished despite their tender ages.