28.02.2008. / 13:22

Autor: Dean Sinovčić


The agony of young Ancic

MARIO ANCIC (24), a Croatian tennis star who fell from 9th place to 135th place in the ATP rankings due to illness, will return to the courts in the upcoming tournament in Zagreb after a year off

After entering the finals of the tennis tournament in Marseille ten days ago, Mario Ancic has finally stopped the turmoil he experienced in 2007. After he was diagnosed with mononucleosis in February 2007, which forced him to rest for six months, he injured his shoulder immediately following his return to the sport; after his recovery, he got a stomach virus. Prior to all these injuries, he was the ranked 9th best player in the world, and after one year of recovery, he has dropped to the 135th rank on the list. This player, who will celebrate his 24th birthday next month, is the last player who was able to beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon, and has also won the Davis Cup as a member of the Croatian National Team. He should currently be one of the best tennis players in the world, but due to his illness, he became a player whose return to the sport was uncertain.

We spoke with Ancic prior to the beginning of the tournament in Zagreb which will be held this week. Even though he looks happier than ever, he told us everything he will have to face in the coming year. It was almost as though he was looking for someone to complain to.

NACIONAL: Your medical problems began in the summer of 2006 when you were injured after falling off a jet ski, and they continued through 2007 with mononucleosis and the shoulder injury. Can you estimate which rank you would hold if you were not injured?
- I would not mix the injuries which occurred over the past year with those which occurred prior to that. When playing professional sports, injuries occur; I have always made a successful comeback, sometimes I even came back stronger. There were pauses because of the injuries, but they were not significant. In 2006, I ended up ranking 9th in the world even though that year, apart from the jet ski injury, I was plagued with medical problems. That year everything went as planned, I was one of the top ten which is the dream of every tennis player. I won two tournaments, I played in the quarter-finals of Roland Garros and Wimbledon and both times I lost to Federer. Rafael Nadal and I were the youngest members among the top ten players that year, I had excellent practice sessions at the beginning of 2007, and I knew that, if I continued in the same sense, I would definitely have been one of the five best tennis players in the world. The season began well, I just barely lost the third round of the Australian Open to Roddick after five sets, where I really saw the results of my hard work. I was very aggressive, which takes a lot of confidence after a series of victorious competitions and which takes a lot of work. I was ready for the next step. And then I got mononucleosis.

NACIONAL: How is it possible that the mononucleosis was not revealed prior to the Davis Cup game against Germany at the beginning of February 2007?
- The National Team gathered in Germany five days prior to the match and I was already sick at the time. However, it appeared to be the flu so I spent most of the week before the first match day resting and did not practice very much. Furthermore, in the first set I ˝killed˝ Tommy Haas with a score of 6:2 and, when I was still feeling strong, I felt great. At the beginning of the second set, I got up from my chair and felt weak. I was dizzy, I coughed up blood, and near the end of the match I was so dizzy that I missed the ball at one moment. Following the match, I did blood tests, but the German doctors claimed that it was a virus and that in the future, even if I would play, I would not have any problems. That is the reason why I competed in the doubles match the followed day which could have been the end of my career because, ten days later, the tests showed that my heart was beginning to fail. However, if I played the final Davis Cup match on Sunday, my career would have surely been over. I had already warmed up for the match, but I did not go onto the court because it was clear that we had lost to Germany and Marin Cilic competed instead of me. That is what saved me.

NACIONAL: What would have happened, based on doctor’s opinions, if you played that Davis Cup match?
- I most likely would have never held a racket again. I would have had heart problems for the rest of my life and I could not compete in professional sports, and maybe not even play tennis recreationally. I was on the edge; I did not sleep all week, and I was sweating and had throat problems.

NACIONAL: Were you angry with the German doctors who, at the time, gave you a false diagnosis?
- They could not have revealed my heart problems; later I received an explanation that my case is an example for Medicine School, to prove how possible it is that such a problem is not uncovered. After the Davis Cup match, I thought that I could continue to play and I went to the tournament in Marseille, where I got a fever the night before the match; I forfeited and returned to Croatia. Ten days later, Croatian doctors gave a proper diagnosis and told me that the German doctors could not have known about my problems. After complete tests, they discovered the problem and we began treatment. They uncovered the mononucleosis, which meant six to nine months of rest. My friend Sjeng Schalken, a tennis player from The Netherlands, was the 20th tennis player in the world when he came down with mononucleosis, which caused him to end his career. When I heard the diagnosis, I realized that there was no medication to speed up the recovery and that I had to rest. It is an ˝annoying˝ illness which requires you to remain in bed. I’ve read a lot about it, I spoke with many athletes who have recovered from it, but there is no advice which can help you. You can only rest and hope that the illness will pass as soon as possible. The heart problems disappeared quickly, which had emerged due to my poor overall health condition, and I only needed to rest. I don’t have any problems with my heart anymore.

NACIONAL: How did the news that you would not play tennis for at least six months affect you psychologically?
- It was a frustrating moment. I was in my strongest form, I though I had the world under my heel. I played well, won tournaments, we won the Davis Cup, and the only thing left for me was to win a Grand Slam tournament. I believed that I could beat Roger Federer. It was not easy for me when they told me that I would have to rest. However, I am a positive person, and I always believe that worse things could have happened to me. That is why I reacted to the illness in the same way I would react to a difficult tennis match. I got used to fighting against everything in sports so at the time, all I had to do was fight the illness. That is why I believed that I would return..

NACIONAL: What did your trainer, Fredrik Rosengren, say to you at that time?
- He was against me playing the Davis Cup in Germany. When I arrived in Germany, I spoke to Rosengren every day on the phone; he knew what the situation was and he told me not to compete in the Davis Cup. Our relationship is based on him giving advice to me but, in the end, I make the final decision. He always tells me that it is my career and that I have to make the decision. Because I competed in two Davis Cup matches, my immunity fell. If I had not played, I believe that I would not have got mononucleosis. The doctors told me that those two matches destroyed me. Rosengren was my support during the period of rest, and he was so fair that he told me that I did not have to pay him anything for 2007 because I barely played, but I told him that I would not accept this.

NACIONAL: What did the first training sessions resemble after you recovered from the mononucleosis?
- I had to break in the training because after two or three attempts, I got a fever and returned to bed. For the first several months, I remained in bed and left the house for five to ten minutes to get fresh air. Mononucleosis is a debilitating illness; I sometimes slept for 17 hours at a time. Sometimes I walked for 15 minutes and then I would sleep five hours because of it. My first training sessions were made up of 30 minute walks. I was happy as a child when they told me, five months after the illness was discovered, that I could run twice a week for twenty minutes. I was used to practicing twice a week. As time passed, I increased the exertion. I should have been more patient during the first several weeks because, after playing two tournaments in August 2007, I had to forfeit the third match because of a shoulder injury.

NACIONAL: You withdrew from the US Open tournament because of a shoulder injury.
- I cancelled the US Open tournament from Beijing, where I competed in the Davis Cup final against Great Britain in the previous year. That injury really affected me because, after enduring all problems caused by the mononucleosis, I could not play again because of the shoulder injury. I had just returned, practiced, beat Tommy Haas in a large tournament in Cincinnati, I was elated. But again I was positive, it could have been worse, I could have had a shoulder operation, but we solved the problem using a conservative method. Even today I do daily exercises to strengthen my shoulders because without it, my shoulder hurts.

NACIONAL: In the middle of October, you returned and got sick again.
- At that time, I was playing in the quarterfinal tournament in Stockholm and the quarterfinal tournament in Madrid and I completed the season. I began training earlier, which lasted for six weeks; I had never practiced for such a long time. I impatiently waited for the beginning of the season, I travelled to Adelaide and began to vomit on the court. I got a fever, forfeited my participation in the tournament in Adelaide, and travelled to Auckland hoping that I would be better. However, I vomited again and got a fever which was caused by a virus. I lost six kilograms and was completely exhausted; after spending 2.5 weeks in bed, I had to forfeit the Australian Open, the fourth Grand Slam which I cancelled in a row.

NACIONAL: One good thing about the mononucleosis in your case what that you were able to do your exams at the Faculty of Law.
- I like to read and I read many books during my recovery. I studied while I was on bed rest, so I only have to complete my graduate exam at the Faculty of Law.

NACIONAL: Is there a danger that sponsors could cancel their contracts with you, if you don’t play?
- People from the IMG Agency, Adidas, Yonex and Vip have been fully supportive. I have been cooperating with the IMG Agency since I was 14 and if there had not been the assistance from IMG, alongside money invested by my family, I would not be where I am today. Tennis is an expensive sport and it is easy to talk about today, but my family and I found ourselves in difficult situations at times. The people at IMG offered to pay for me to receive treatment in the United States, but I told them that I believe in Croatian doctors, which was an appropriate opinion. The owner of IMG, Teddy Forstmann, is great friends with Suad Rizvanbegovic. Prior to my mononucleosis, they informed me that I would be signing a significant sponsorship agreement with a large company. After the illness, the deal fell through. Also, upon entering the finals of the tournament in Marseille, I received a telephone call from the head of the tennis department at Adidas; we spoke for thirty minutes, and he knew all the details of my illness. I think that I have good relationships with all the people in tennis, and these relationships are not only professional, so all sponsors told me that there would be no cancellation of these agreements. Furthermore, they all gave me support, as others from the world of tennis who today offer me “wild card” invitations to tournaments.

NACIONAL: How did your coach, Rosengren, experience your return?
- Rosengren is a real fighter, he is dangerous and a really hard worker. We started working together because he is a Swede, and he is just as persistent and hard working as I am. I am a Dalmatian and am temperamental, as is he, which opposes the conception that Scandinavians are cold. When I play, he experiences every point I win. He is extremely emotional, he cried after I beat Tsong in the first round of the tournament in Marseille. It wasn’t all the same to me either especially since my illness was revealed at last year’s tournament in Marseille, so I hope that everything will end with this year’s tournament.

NACIONAL: Andy Murray beat you in the finals in Marseille and congratulated you for such an unbelievable recovery. Is there solidarity between tennis players in such a cruel world?
- It is unbelievable how positive and happy other tennis players were about my return. Murray told me that my return was amazing; when he addressed the crowd, he said that I have the most medical problems among all professional tennis players. I received many messages and this was proof that solidarity does exist. Some tennis players told me that ˝I am glad you are back, but I am not pleased that you beat me so many times˝. That was just a joke on their part.

NACIONAL: You arrived in Marseille as the 135th best player in the world; why, when you discovered that you had mononucleosis, didn’t you request a protected placement which would allow you to have the same status as you did prior to the illness upon your recovery?
- Everyone asks that. When I was ill, I had to wait two to three weeks to receive a protected placement. When I got sick I was ranked 9th, after three weeks I was ranked 30th and I didn’t know that after mononucleosis I would have problems with my shoulder and the virus. If I would have known that I would miss the entire season due to injury, I would have requested a protected placement. Who could have known that new injuries would appear after the mononucleosis. I also had problems with my thyroid gland because of the stress surrounding these events. I do not want to talk about that because it would look like I am a travelling hospital.

NACIONAL: After playing the finals in Marseille, the Croatian public will want you to win the tournament in Zagreb. Does that create pressure for you?
- Not at all. After one year, I am enjoying the fact that I am here and am happy that I have an opportunity to play. In the first round in Marseille, I played in the central court and in the second round, I played on court #1. They asked me if it would be a problem for me if I would not play on the central court, and I said: ˝Bring me four balls and a judge and put me wherever you want. It’s only important that I play.˝

'Talent only gives you a possibility to work'

NACIONAL: Your coach, Rosengren, said in 2007 that he believed in your return because you are unbelievable hard working. Where did you get such work ethic?
- Many other coaches, alongside Rosengren, have said this. We are raised this way in my family, we only see talent as a possibility to work. That is the only road to success in tennis. There are a great number of tennis players who play beautifully and when you watch them you wonder why they are not among the top ten in the world. You have to work, and because tennis is like chess, your mind must also work. A combination of both places you among the top ten tennis players in the world, and I would have never reached the top ten if, alongside my talent, I didn’t work hard.