Thursday, October 9, 2008
Afflicted Ancic can't seem to catch a break
By Ravi Ubha Special to ESPN.com
With a law degree and a booming serve, Mario Ancic has everything going for him -- almost.
Roger Federer's battle with mononucleosis this year was much-publicized.
Spare a thought for Mario Ancic, who was tipped for greatness four years ago following an extended stay at Wimbledon. Due to the same illness, Ancic missed a chunk of 2007, just when he was on a roll, and is now dealing with the aftereffects for a second time. Marcos Baghdatis is struggling, too. Having recovered from a wrist injury, the tour's ultimate showman was struck down by a bad back.
Life is good, meanwhile, for Japanese phenom Kei Nishikori.
Here's a look at those rising, ailing and struggling.
Ancic on the road to recovery -- again
When Mario Ancic sustained a serious case of mono that nearly ended his career last year, he knew he'd never be the same physically. Unfortunately for the Croat with the thunderous serve, imposing wingspan and tireless work ethic, a relapse came at the wrong time.
Ancic just reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, where a few grueling encounters didn't help, and was about to embark on one of the biggest events of the season, for him and a few others -- the Beijing Olympics.
Having felt sluggish in an opening-round loss at the Toronto Masters and having skipped the Cincinnati Masters in the summer as the fatigue intensified and the weight loss mounted, to about 15 pounds in total, the 24-year-old knew he couldn't go.
"I pulled out of many Grand Slams in the last few years, and it's always tough, but the Olympics is once in four years and it means so much to me," Ancic said from his hotel room in Stockholm, Sweden, where he's competing at the Stockholm Open. "It was extremely hard. I came back home and was just around very close people. I turned off my mobile phone and just wanted to be by myself for some time."
Ancic, who teamed with veteran Ivan Ljubicic to win doubles bronze at the Athens Games four years ago, has missed six of the past nine Grand Slams, including three straight at the U.S. Open. The main culprit was mono, which first surfaced in January 2007, though knee and shoulder injuries also arose.
That semifinal showing at the All England Club (in 2004), downing Roger Federer on grass (in '02), clinching Croatia's maiden Davis Cup title in hostile surroundings (in '05) and rising to seventh in the rankings a year later all seem like a distant memory.
Ancic, down to No. 136 in January and back up to 31st now as the pendulum continues to swing, knows that, too.
"Two-and-a-half years ago I was probably in the best shape and everything was going great," he said. "Probably I was the leader or maybe one of them of this new generation. Let's say the last 2½ years, my tennis career hasn't gone as planned."
Ancic is an intelligent character, earning his law degree in the spring, and thus is well aware another mono-induced setback might be around the corner.
He derives strength in letters from fans, some of whom are suffering from mono or other illnesses or are just struggling in school. They appreciate the fight he's putting up.
"When I was diagnosed, I knew it was going to take long to recover the first time, and I knew there would be a lot of these side effects because tennis is the No. 1 individual sport in terms of being physically demanding," Ancic said. "I can't hide. I just have to move on and every time it happens, try to come back stronger mentally and physically, to fight against this like I do on the tennis court. But I hope this is the last time."
Ancic was ticked with the International Tennis Federation after the governing body fined Croatia last week for using a court surface that was too fast in its Davis Cup World Group playoff against Brazil.
The ITF enforced something called the Court Pace Rating Rule, which came into effect this year. It states in part: "The pace of the courts to be used, excluding grass and clay surfaces, shall have a measured ITF Court Pace Rating between 24 and 50 inclusive. If on-site testing establishes that the court does not comply with the required Court Pace Rating, the host nation will be subject to one or more of the following penalties "
With the rating above 50, Croatia was the first country to be penalized.
"I spoke with the Brazilian team, and we all said that there's much more faster surfaces that we played on," Ancic said. "It's a small difference between what was allowed and what was not. I think they tried to make an example of us, and I was really surprised. Players told me in the last two weeks since this decision came that they played on terrible clay courts and conditions and still there was nothing going on."
The indoor hard court in Zadar was indeed fast. The series featured 11 tiebreakers, but note that tiebreaker-friendly Ivo Karlovic was involved in seven. Croatia triumphed 4-1.
Barbara Travers, head of communications at the ITF, denied that Croatia was singled out. She refused to disclose the amount of the fine.
"We test lots of courts, so unfortunately Croatia just fell on the wrong side of the rule," Travers said. "They weren't made an example of. Like every other nation they were expected to uphold the rule."
Croatian officials plan to appeal, Ancic said.
IMG agent Olivier van Lindonk knew one of his clients, Kei Nishikori, was in for a rousing reception when he returned to his native Japan to compete at last week's Japan Open. But even van Lindonk was shocked at what he saw.
Nishikori, the low-key, book-reading teen who earlier this year became the first Japanese male since 1992 to win a top-tier title, was greeted by more than 60 journalists as he stepped off the plane in Tokyo.
Teenage sensation Kei Nishikori is reaping the benefits of a promising career on the ATP Tour.
During the tournament itself, as pointed out by colleague Neil Harman of the Times, Nishikori's every movement, from his hotel to the site, was captured by a half-dozen camera crews. Plus, there were 24 requests for one-on-one interviews -- an unfathomable scenario, even for Andy Murray and the hoards of British journalists.
"I've never seen it to that extent," van Lindonk said from his office near Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy in Florida, where the 18-year-old has long been based. "Coming back to your home country and getting absolutely attacked from a publicity point of view is something that doesn't happen often, at this level."
Coinciding with his arrival, Nishikori signed a pact with Nissin Food Products Co. to endorse the company's instant noodles on a patch on his adidas-sponsored shirt. He was already one of three global ambassadors for Sony Corporation.
A person familiar with the Nissin and Sony deals, who didn't want to be identified, said both are worth seven figures annually. While not commenting on the numbers, van Lindonk added that one or two more deals are in the works.
New attendance records were set while Nishikori, a speedy baseliner, was still alive in the tournament, surpassing figures of two years ago, when Federer claimed the title.
"I think it was like a bomb," said Tadahiro Yoshimatsu, a tennis writer with Japanese sports daily Nikkan. "He is a new hero in Japan, young and has a nice smile."
Dubbed 'Air Kei' due to his penchant for leaping at times as he strikes his forehand, Nishikori exited earlier than most hoped, losing in the third round to Richard Gasquet, who was once acclaimed as a teen sensation himself but is struggling to live up to the hype at 22.
Still, apart from his title in Delray Beach, Fla. in February, the diminutive Nishikori, ranked 77th, reached the fourth round at the U.S. Open and played Rafael Nadal tough on grass at the Artois Championships in June.
For many in Japan, it's all about Nishikori getting to 45th in the world, which would make him the highest ranking Japanese male in history, one place ahead of big-serving Shuzo Matsuoka in 1992. But van Lindonk said Nishikori has loftier goals.
"The thing I'm happy to see is how hungry he still is, because it's obviously very easy to come home to this kind of attention and say, 'I'm there already,'" he said. "I think what helps is that he's being pushed everyday at the academy. They've always said in the beginning, 'I know in Japan it's about being 45th in the world, but our goal is to get into the top 5 or 10."'
Remember Marcos Baghdatis? That smiling fella who orchestrated the crowds two years ago at the Australian Open and played some breathtaking stuff to reach the final? The guy who always seems to find himself in a dramatic five-setter? He's still around but can't catch a break.
Slowed by a bum ankle prior to Wimbledon, the Cypriot missed the entire U.S. Open Series and the Olympics due to a much more serious injury to his right wrist. Then in his first tournament back, the wrist problem resurfaced, forcing the 23-year-old to retire in the semis of a Challenger in France last month.
Healthy enough to compete at the Open de Moselle in Metz, also in France, last week, Baghdatis led Karlovic 6-4, 1-2 when he suffered a back spasm after unleashing a serve, sending him to the ground in agony.
Baghdatis left the court on a stretcher and subsequently withdrew from this week's BA-CA Tennis Trophy in Vienna and next week's Madrid Masters. He's rehabbing in Greece and hopes to return at the Swiss Indoors in Basel on Oct. 20.
"It looked terrible," said his coach, Peter Lundgren, in a phone interview. "I thought it was worse than it actually was. He couldn't move because the spasm was so tight. He was stiff in his back for a few days and it just got worse and worse, and he told me after the first set it was tight."
Due to the wrist, Baghdatis was unable to lift weights and strengthen his upper body, and Lundgren suggested that factor probably contributed to the latest ailment. Baghdatis' weight -- some have said he is too heavy -- isn't a factor.
"Maybe a couple of years ago he was a little bit heavy, but I don't think that's the reason," said Lundgren, a former coach of Federer and Marat Safin. "He's built that way. He's fitter than ever, I mean, he's really, really slim now. He's been working hard and done everything; that's why it's so frustrating. You feel so much for the guy because he's such a good guy."
Baghdatis is down to 42nd in the rankings, two years after rising to eighth, and was heading south even before the wrist injury, but Lundgren predicted a revival.
"Tennis-wise he's on an incredible level," he said. "If he could just get healthy and get some good draws and play normal, then I'm sure he will be back quickly."
At the U.S. Open, strapping Swede Joachim Johansson told ESPN.com he had no intentions of coming back.
What a kidder.
Fractionally more than a month later, Johansson, who announced his retirement in February thanks to recurring injuries to his right shoulder, returned as a wild card at the Stockholm Open and downed another big server, Frenchman Nicolas Mahut, in his opener.
"I did not feel my shoulder at all," said the 26-year-old, a former U.S. Open semifinalist and world No. 9.
The news probably wasn't a surprise to Sweden's tennis community. Johansson, according to several, is utterly passionate about the game and never fully discounted a comeback, shoulder permitting.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.