Each Thursday, Joel Drucker will look back at a moment in tennis that warrants remembrance. Some will be significant, others humorous, and many in between. It's Throwback Thursday, tennis-style.
Nearly a decade later they would join forces, one coaching the other. But on this day in Key Biscayne, defending Miami champion Roger Federer looked across the net at Ivan Ljubicic and only saw danger.
At the start of 2005, Ljubicic was ranked outside the Top 20. But that year he had carried the Croatian Davis Cup team on his back, a first-time run to the title that included wins over Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, along with several dramatic doubles victories. By March 2006, he was ranked sixth in the world.
In Key Biscayne, Ljubicic won five matches on his way to the finals, dispatching world No. 3 David Nalbandian in the semis, 6-1, 6-2. Closing out the match with two straight aces, the 27-year-old upped his 2006 record to a sparkling 25-3—second-best on the tour to that point.
Number one, of course, happened to be Federer, who upped his ’06 record to 27-1 with a 6-1, 6-4 semifinal win over 11th-ranked David Ferrer. The Swiss was just over two years into a run that saw him hold the world No. 1 ranking for a record 237 consecutive weeks.
Back then, the men’s final was best three-out-of-five sets. A year earlier, Federer had rallied from two sets to love down to win the title. His opponent that day was an ascending 18-year-old who’d beaten him in Miami the previous year, Rafael Nadal.
Ljubicic posed a much different set of questions than the grinding Spaniard. The cornerstones of the 6’4” Croat’s game were a big serve and a slick, forceful one-handed backhand.
Federer had won their last six matches, and just the previous month beat Ljubicic 6-2, 6-3 in the quarterfinals of Indian Wells.
“I played a fantastic match in Indian Wells to dominate him,” said Federer. “So if I could do the same, that would be great.”
Not this time.
The first set went one minute short of an hour. Neither player lost serve, but in the tiebreak, Federer played just well enough to go up 6-5 and close it out with an ace.
And when he broke Ljubicic early in the second, the Federer Express appeared ready to run away with it. But the Croatian broke right back, and soon enough came another tiebreaker. Though Ljubicic took a 4-2 lead, Federer won five straight points for a two-set lead that was closer than the scores showed.
The third set also went the distance. But serving at 5-6 in the third set tiebreaker, Federer cracked a pair of big serves to earn a championship point—and then struck a crosscourt backhand return that ticked the net and dropped over for a winner.
Like many a Federer victim, Ljubicic was less disturbed loser and more happy witness, as if the chance to get beaten—albeit closely—by tennis’ quintessential genius was a joyous story he’d be able to tell his grandchildren.
“For ten seconds after the match, you’re mad because you were close,” said Ljubicic. “But a week after, you’re proud. I’m going to be proud of the way I played and the fact that was close.”
“I never panic,” Federer said, “I think that’s the key in the end. You’ve got to believe in your game.”
Each went on to have an excellent season—Federer in his familiar No. 1 position, Ljubicic attaining a year-end career high of No. 5. But notably, at Roland Garros, each would be stymied by Nadal—the Croat in the semis, the Swiss in the finals.
Since Ljubicic became part of Federer’s coaching team in 2015, one wonders if they’ve had many an interesting conversation about their many matches and moments.