Ivan Ljubicic: Me and my racket
He's unfailingly likeable, supremely gifted and a model professional on and off the court, but the 31-year-old Croat admits he has one character flaw. He's a bit of a racket geek...
You’ve played with the HEAD YOUTEK Extreme Pro for a while, what do you like about it?
I’m in my fifth year playing with it now and I think it’s one of the most powerful rackets out there. The ball goes off the racket incredibly fast.
It suits your playing style then?
It does. It’s got a big, wide head, so it takes a lot of spin, which is not something that HEAD rackets were famous for before this one. I often play with it strung at 32 kilos – and I still get a lot of power - so that shows you how powerful it is.
Did HEAD involve you in the development of the frame?
The frame didn’t exist before I started playing with it, basically HEAD made the racket for me and they were very, very good with involving me in the process.I went to the HEAD factory in Austria to see how it was made and I spent 10 days there while they explained everything. It was an incredible experience.
So, you’re quite the racket geek after that?
Well I am, actually. I didn’t know that the rackets start with graphite, and then you roll them and cook them and so on. It was really something to see, a great, great experience.
So you’re looking forward to the next upgrade then?
Yes! I don’t like to change a lot, but every couple of years they come up with something a little different that makes the racket better. It’s nice that they don’t just sit down and think they have the best racket – they always try to improve on it.
How many rackets do you travel with?
At Grand Slams and Davis Cups, definitely 10. But in the ATP tournaments where it’s only best of three sets, I can get away with six, sometimes seven. I always need eight rackets on court for best-of-five matches and will have two extra just in case something happens to them. I don’t throw or smash frames, but sometimes you don’t feel one racket as well as you would like to. In best-of-three matches I go on court with six, and then I’ll have one extra handy just in case.
That’s a fair few frames – I’m guessing you never run out of rackets on court?
Well it did happen actually, but not recently. It was 10 years ago at the French Open when I lost to Marcos Ondruska. Back then I played with Slazenger rackets and I was breaking a string every 15 minutes! I lost 10-8 in the fifth set and basically I was down to the last racket and even that was almost breaking. It’s not a nice feeling thinking, 'Oh no, I’m gonna run out,' so you want to make sure you have enough.
It’s rare for you to smash rackets, do you remember the last time?
Hmm, maybe in Metz last year? I’m not sure. Maybe I break one or two a season, maybe even less than that. I sometimes feel even more nervous in practice than in a match. You push yourself to your limits and get really tired, and that’s when you’re nervous. Fatigue and mental stress are always connected. When I contest matches, I play them because I’m ready, so smashing rackets doesn’t really happen on court for me, but in practice it does happen sometimes – when you’re not quite feeling the ball. My coach is actually quite happy when that happens because it means I want something badly and he wants to see that desire.
Did you smash rackets much as a junior?
No, no, I was always pretty calm. There were periods as a kid, at 14, 15, when I wasn’t smashing, but kind of throwing them. Once you start doing that it becomes a bit of a habit. My father was never happy seeing me throw rackets though and he was really strict about it so I lost that habit. I was never a freak about it.
Do you remember your first racket?
Yes, it was a green Dunlop – the racket Steffi Graf used to play with years ago. I was told that it was a ladies racket, but it was good for me. I was a kid and it was light so it was alright! I played with a wooden racket for a couple of months after that.
How do you think you’d fare with a wooden racket now?
I’d love to try! I think I can play. You can’t really hit topspin with a wooden racket, and I think my game is pretty flat, especially the backhand, the serve and volley and the sliced shots. Maybe I’d have a bit more trouble on the forehand. I haven’t played with one for a long, long time but it would be nice to see an exhibition match with a couple of pro guys to see how they would deal with a wooden racket!
Back to your current model, what strings and tensions do you use?
I use a hybrid combination – Babolat gut in the mains and Luxilon in the crosses. The tension is between 31 and 33 kilos depending on conditions. If I want more power then I go down with the tension, if I want more control then I go really high.
Do you use a vibration dampener?
Yes. I’ve been told the ball doesn’t really go off the racket any different without one, so I don’t think it would be any problem to play without, but as far as I can remember I always played with one, so I keep using it. I don’t like the feeling of playing without a dampener – you feel as if the racket’s loose.
What grip size do you use?
It’s 4 or 4½ – basically four with one overgrip.
Do you have any equipment-based superstitions?
No, but I always like to put new grips on my racket, even when I practice. I don’t think it’s a superstition – I just like the feeling when it’s sticky. I used to use blue grips – very similar to Tourna Grip, but
I switched a couple of years ago to the white Prestige grips because I like the tacky feeling. I always hold the racket in the same way too, but more because it’s kind of made to hold it one way. I’m not really a superstitious player.
How often do you get new frames?
I usually get four new batches of 10 rackets throughout the year – at the start of the year, before the clay season, Wimbledon and then again later in the season.
What do you do with your old rackets?
I give them away to charities or friends. They have my name on so they are personalised.
You don’t give them to your son?
HEAD already asked me if my son wants a racket and I said he’s too small! He’s only two years old, so let’s wait a little bit longer for that!