Shanghai Surprise!

Monday, November 20, 2006 /by

[Ed. Note: Just before jetting back to his home country of Portugal, Miguel Seabra filed this lovely little report from the Shanghai pressroom. Enjoy!]

So, Roger Federer won yet another big title, the Masters Cup, this weekend, but the focus on this entry from Shanghai won’t be on him – it will be on the last player who beat him at Wimbledon, in 2002: Mario Ancic, who made the trip to China as first alternate.

Mario Fortunately for the top eight that qualified for the Masters Cup, none were injured during the week. Unfortunately for Mario, this meant he was never called on to play in the tournament. However, Ancic isn't the sort of fellow who would find it enjoyable to play due to someone else's injury; he's had his share of pain (and then some) this year.

Mario had to sit out most of the early claycourt season due to a herniated disc in his back. Then, he injured his knee in a freak jetski accident in July, forcing a three-month layoff.

Altogether, he missed three Masters Series (Monte-Carlo, Canada, and Cincinatti) and the U.S. Open.

Another incident worthy of note marring 2006 was when Ancic involuntarily injured Thomas Johansson, his friend and doubles partner, while practising serves in Rotterdam; Mario accidentally mis-hit a serve, which bounced into Thomas' left eye. Johannson was nearly blind for several weeks; the eye injury, at one point, threatened to end his career. Mario, concerned for his friend, spent the next month calling the Johannson household for daily recuperation updates.

However, even with these upsetting incidents and nagging injuries, Ancic barely missed qualifying for the year-end championship, which speaks volumes about the quality (and variety) of his active season. He reached the quarters at Wimbledon, Roland Garros, Paris, Rome, and Miami; he also booked a place in the Hamburg semifinals. Ancic reached the finals of Auckland, Marseille, and Beijing, and took home two titles at St. Petersburg and s'Hertogenbosch.

Mario’s great run in 2006, plus the fact that he’s a fan favorite, prompted me to invite him over to the pressroom and do a special feature, together, for TennisWorld. He was more than happy to do it, eagerly checking out TW while we spoke.

The conversation began with Mario reviewing his eventful year:

I missed three Masters Series events and one Grand Slam because of injury and was fighting until the last week to be among the eight in Shanghai – it didn’t happen, but I always think positive: if I see a glass half-full or half-empty, I always take the glass half full and for me it was an incredible season.

At 22, I can only be happy. My child dream was to be a top 10, I achieved that. Winning the bronze medal for Croatia in the Olympic Games, then winning the Davis Cup and the World Team Cup for Croatia were very important in my career and now I had a number 9 finish.

Mario reached consecutive quarterfinals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but he pinpointed a different performance as his most significant of the year:

Being in the final of Beijing late September was probably the most important result of the year, after being out for two months. I worked very hard to come back, I was every day at the rehab seven and eight hours to try to come back as fast as I could and then played the final and won the doubles – it showed me I was back again in the good direction. I worked really like hell during eight hours a day for several weeks, came back in Beijing and it paid off.

Friends Then, he elaborated on the two accidents which shadowed his season:

In life, you can’t predict what can happen, what you can do is to learn and get better from the experience of these kind of things..

In Thomas’s case, it was a matter of milliseconds; we were practicing the serve when my serve kicked off into his eye when he was reaching to catch a ball laying on the court. He almost lost his sight.

I was worried a lot, I was calling him and his wife all the time and when I heard he was fine it was easier for me… I was feeling very bad at the time, then after a couple of months it happened the same to me – a strange accident.

Oddly enough, the two men played against each other in the final of St. Petersburg, late in the season; Mario beat his friend with an aggressive display of serve-and-volley tennis. Then, Mario turned serious when talking about his own accident; he was done putting up with more than his fair share of criticism, due to misleading press reports:

I would like to say what happened because a lot of people have wrong ideas. First of all, I had to take a week off after practically not having the off-season last year because of the Davis Cup final. I decided to stay home in Croatia and go to the islands, so I called my coach Fredrik Rosengren, organized everything with a yacht and then, at the end of the day, we had a last jet ski ride..

it’s important to say that the engine was off by then, a wave came, we threw ourselves into the sea and I just did a bad thing with the knee. I wanted to tell exactly what happened because people were reading in the media that I was driving fast, but I wasn’t.

As we say, you can’t live under the roof all the time – because anything can happen, like walking on the street and twisting an ankle for some reason.

Message sent, Mario. For a moment, we recalled his scintillating win, as an unknown qualifier, over Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2002:

It was an unbelievable achievement for me, because that year he was already favoured to win. The outcome of that match was a big confidence boost for me.

This led to a conversation about surface tactics. Mario is a serve-and-volleyer on fast-court surfaces, so I asked him why he plays a two-handed backhand. After all, great serve-and-volleyers, including Edberg and Sampras, abandoned the two-hander in their youth.

I was thinking of changing to a one-handed backhand when I was young. But it doesn’t matter – if you’re aggressive, it doesn’t matter if you have a one-hander or a two-hander.

Then we talked a bit about Goran Ivanisevic, Croatian tennis legend, 2001 Wimbledon champion, and notable, loveable headcase. Interestingly, Mario has the exact same basso profundo voice and accent as Goran. They live on the same street in Split and Goran’s influence on Mario’s career has been huge:

Goran is the biggest idol in Croatia – it doesn’t matter if you were a football player or a basketball player, everyone looked up to him.

As we were talking, many experienced journalists came by to congratulate Ancic on his season; then, several Chinese reporters swooped in and began asking for autographs and taking pictures. So, I thought I would help spare Mario that kind of harassment by (prematurely) ending his interview on a good note. He left, but not before saying this to all of TennisWorld:

I’ll be checking this blog more often and obviously what they have to write, if they have any ideas for me and my game. After all, that’s why we are here for – for our fans and I’d like the opportunity to thank them for all the support they gave me, especially when I was injured.

By now, Mario has already left Shanghai, heading off for a well-deserved vacation before preparing for 2007. Hopefully, at some point, we can manage to get him to check on his fans over here.

So, there you have it. Thanks for your time, Mario, and I hope the TW Tribe welcomes you with their great comments, suggestions, or even questions they’d like to ask you.

He’s all yours, tribe. [Ed. Note: Be Gentle!]

Miguel Seabra, in Shanghai

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