Split, Croatia’s premier clay court Tennis Club in Firule is hugged by a scenic marina on one side and a pebble beach on the other. It’s a quiet setting away from the center of the city encapsulated by Diocletian’s Palace, but contains possibly even more magic than that found within the former Roman Emperor’s walls. Legends such as Goran Ivanisevic and Nikola Pilic have practiced on the clay courts there, and last week another Croat who called Firule home added his name to the ATP Tour’s retirement roll, 26-year-old Mario Ancic.
Ancic is best known for his rise to World Number 7 back in 2006, but what gives his game strength is that he was the only player to beat Roger Federer — and at Wimbledon, no less — between 2002 and 2008. Having nicknames like “Baby Goran” reflecting his game’s likeness to his mentor Ivanisevic, or “Super Mario” after his missile-like serves, it was hard not to enjoy watching Ancic succeed on-court. He helped Croatia win its sole Davis Cup title in 2005 and teamed up with friend Ivan Ljubicic to take home a bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Over the span of his professional career which lasted ten years, Ancic pocketed nearly $4 million dollars.
Sadly though, after a freak knee injury while jet skiing followed by a separate back injury in 2006, his career never rebounded. At the beginning of 2007 and 2008, he was stricken with mononucleosis which kept him more off the court than on it. The back injury continued to plague him for several years before it forced him to call it quits.
On February 23, 2011, Ancic came full circle as he made the teary announcement about his retirement at the very courts where he hit his first fuzzy yellow tennis ball nearly twenty years ago.
“For the last few years, I have been fighting against all kinds of illnesses. The last back injury was the last straw, it was the product of not playing due to mononucleosis from Krefeld in 2007, frequent breaks and numerous returns. After consulting with experts from Germany, France, the U.S. and Croatia, I came to the realization that my body could no longer follow the rhythm of today’s tennis game. There was no other solution. I have always fought, fallen and risen up, but I’ve always been honest with myself.”
Speaking to a private newspaper earlier in the week, Ancic also confessed that “it would not be me out there anymore. I knew I would never be 100% fit again, and there was no real answer to it. It would have required a pretty serious operation ever for me to have a chance to recover and I would never have been guaranteed a full motion again … I had to be fair with myself. My mind was fine but my body couldn’t compete.”
Ivan Ljubicic, in a press conference after his first-round match in Dubai last week, expressed his admiration for Ancic.
“Together we achieved so much at such early stages in our careers. It was just incredibly unfortunate to kind of finish it that way. I saw him in Zagreb just a couple of weeks ago. We are in touch all the time. I didn’t bother asking him too much how he was, because I knew the answer. It was not good, not good for the last three years.”
As difficult as it was for Ancic to speak, he praised the people who helped him achieve his greatness.
“I am grateful to God for the talent he gave me, but without the people in Tennis Club Split there would be no ‘me’. I am tremendously grateful to my family, my brother Ivica who was the main reason for my entry into tennis, all my trainers who worked with me from beginning to end, all those who prepared me and cared about my health. I also want to thank my fellow players. I honestly and proudly wore the Croatian representation from the time I was 15 to the last moment that I could play.”
But, fear not, Ancic has prepared for this moment. During his time away from tennis, he was able to finish his law degree from the University of Split in April of 2008 and has already been interning at a law office in Zagreb. His thesis was entitled “ATP Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” where he dealt with the legal foundation and organization of the ATP Tour. It seems that no matter how far he was from tennis, his heart was always craving it.
And it seems that the current President of the Croatian Tennis Federation, Radimir Cacic, also understands the impact Ancic has had on Croatian tennis. He invited Ancic to assume the role of President when his own term ends. But Ancic left much to be desired: “I have a challenge in the legal profession, but I always want to be close to the sport. Tennis wasn’t just a sport for me, but a way of thinking. I definitely want to … help our athletes, the future tennis players.”
Ancic concluded with a heartfelt goodbye.
“It will take a long time until I can watch tennis in peace, but time heals all wounds. I knew this moment would come so I was prepared, educated. New challenges now await me. The energy, desire and will I invested in tennis I now want to invest in something new. For me, sport and tennis are a part of life and will always be close. I am leaving peaceful and fulfilled.”
Ancic will bid his final farewell to tennis during Croatia’s Davis Cup meeting against Germany this week.
Check out ATP World Tour Uncovered with Mario Ancic and a few select photos below.