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Party line call is bad for Ivan Ljubicic

On his 30th birthday, Croatian doesn't get a break from machine in quarterfinal loss to Andy Murray.

March 20, 2009|BILL DWYRE

So, Ivan Ljubicic, how did you spend your 30th birthday Thursday? Do any fun stuff? Any good gifts?

Oh, we forgot. You had a tennis match. Quarterfinals of that big deal over at the Indian Wells Garden. The one in the big, fancy stadium with all those signs for that French bank, BNP Paribas. Gotta feel sorry for those guys, being a foreign bank and all. They can't put their hands into our tax-paying pockets like our banks.

So, you're gonna wear that orange shirt again. Goes good with the white cap that covers the bald head. The kid across the net, Andy Murray, has thick black hair to take care of the hot desert sun.

He's 21, huh? Ranked No. 4 in the world.

Remember those days? Three years ago, when you got to No. 3. Used to play guys like Roger Federer pretty tough. Once destroyed an entire United States Davis Cup team of Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi and the Bryant brothers, almost all by yourself.

Still, the international spotlight never really shined for you, even though few are more beloved in Croatia. Not fair, but maybe that's because half the people in the world can't spell your name and the other half can't pronounce it.

How time flies. Thirty years. Not old in most walks of life, but borderline decrepit in men's tennis. Where have you gone, Andre Agassi? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Now, you play a match, go back to the hotel, take Advil and change diapers. Five-month-old son. Life is good. You look across the net at Murray, think about the diaper-changing and giggle that this kid isn't that far removed from them himself.

You laugh to yourself about all the questions you get these days on your friend Federer's upcoming fatherhood, like it will hurt his tennis or something. He'll handle it easily, just like he handled Fernando Verdasco in straight sets in the day's other quarterfinal.

Before you play, you realize you've got to erase all these old war-horse thoughts, even if the day before hurt your chances badly.

How the gods of fortune can torture. Young Murray gets a quick default early Wednesday and you have to outlast a big-hitting Russian named Igor Andreev in a match that takes 3 hours 6 minutes.

Is there no justice? You have to come back from that to play in the earliest quarterfinal match of the day, while young Murray probably went out and played 18 holes before dark.

Nice crowd in the stadium. You wonder if some of the people just stayed all night, after the Rafael Nadal-David Nalbandian thriller that ended at 2:01 a.m. Those late hours didn't seem to bother Nadal, who looked as fresh as a daisy afterward. We forget. He is 22.

You're supposed to lose this one, of course, mostly because of the rankings gap between his No. 4 and your No. 74, but it doesn't start coming apart until he is serving for the first set at 6-5. You stay with him to 30-all, then toss a nice little drop shot at him.

But you forget, he is 21, loose and limber, can run all day. He glides in and answers with his own drop shot. You try, but can't quite get there. Break point, a first serve, and you are down a set.

Then comes the worst indignity, a crime against a person having a birthday. Late in the second set, great chance for a break point, Murray's return floats over the net, into the doubles alley. You stand two feet away, watching it land, a good foot out. The linesman calls it out and you have a break point.

Wait a minute. Murray challenges, the infallible Hawkeye camera, which often isn't, shows the ball landing on the line. You have to replay the point, which you lose. Jobbed on your birthday. No amount of discussion with the chair umpire, who shrugs a lot like all chair umpires do in these situations, gets you anywhere.

You explain later that the camera showed the second bounce of the ball, not the first. Human error, you call it.

"We wanted to take control of the human error with that machine," you say, "and then again you have the human error of the operator who is controlling that machine."

The match goes into the inevitable tiebreaker, you muff an easy forehand volley right on the service line and soon Murray serves big to run it out, 7-5, 7-6 (6).

When it is over, you probably want to go hide, or hunt down the Hawkeye operator. But you are a good sport, stand at center court and let several thousand people sing happy birthday to you while your stomach churns.

Later, they bring you a cake in the players' lounge and the photographers snap away. You probably want to punch somebody, but you smile and stay nice. A fly keeps landing on the cake as you cut it. There are five candles and it takes you three breaths to blow them out.

You're asked one of those questions ranking high on the all-time stupidity list: How do you feel, now that you are 30? You respond perfectly.

"Same as yesterday, when I wasn't," you say.


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