It’s been a long time coming for Mario Ancic but it’s finally official. At the age of just 26, his career is over.
The Croat battled against the effects of a severe bout of mononucleosis for the best part of four years but a chronic back problem has finally forced him to admit defeat.
He’ll go down as one of the great lost talents of the modern era.
Given that he first burst on the scene by demolishing Roger Federer in 2002 as an 18-year-old it’s easy to forget just how young Ancic was when he was first struck down.
In March of his breakthrough season of 2006, he turned 22. That’s the same age as Aleksandr Dolgopolov, a player who is spoken of now as a bright hope for the future.
In hindsight, that victory over Federer probably did him more harm than good and he struggled to cope with expectations. When he reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 2004 the hype machine went into overdrive with Boris Becker declaring him “the future of tennis”.
He wasn’t able to deal with that burden and spent much of 2005 choking on the biggest stage.
Although he picked up his first career title in Hertogenbosch, finals defeats to journeymen Wayne Arthurs and Wesley Moodie in Scottsdale and Tokyo respectively showed he was struggling to get the most from his game.
He also lost his first four live Davis Cup singles rubbers of the year but the final provided him the chance of redemption, the title coming down to his match against Slovakia’s Michal Mertinak.
Ancic prevailed against his 165th ranked opponent and credits that match with giving him the confidence he needed to become a top 10 player the following year.
However, there was little evidence of what was to come later in 2006 in the early months of that year. In his first tournament of the season Ancic blew three match points in a defeat to Xavier Malisse and lost two more finals as a heavy favourite. (To Nieminen in Auckland and Clement in Marseilles)
After that something clicked and Ancic seemed to suddenly swing full circle from mental midget to giant when he hit the clay circuit that spring.
In Rome he saved three match points in successive matches against Florent Serra and Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo while in Hamburg he recovered from a set down in three successive rounds before falling to eventual champion Tommy Robredo in the semi-final.
Ancic carried that new-found stubbornness to the summer slams and reached the Roland Garros quarter-final after an epic battle against Robredo where he threw-up on court in the fifth set.
After losing to Federer in the quarter-final, Ancic retained his Hertogenbosch title before heading for Wimbledon where he once again ran into the world number 1 in the last eight.
It seemed Ancic had finally arrived. His talent was never in doubt but it looked like he’d finally added the resilience and self-belief that had always been lacking.
According to the player, his transformation was physical just as much as mental. He’d worked hard on his physique and after hooking up with Fredrik Rosengren in August 2005 had completely remodelled his forehand.
He was no longer a pure serve-volley player and away from the grass was just as likely to grind points out from the baseline as he was to repeatedly rush the net.
“I was not physically ready,” he said in 2006. “I was 1.96m, skinny and today in men’s tennis you have to have a lot of strength. Of course you need lungs for running but you also have to be in the gym to develop.
“When I see pictures of myself from four years ago, I was like a tree! It’s really tough to play like that. I worked really hard. Hopefully I can keep on developing. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Ranked inside the top 10 and finally living up to his early potential, the bad luck started.
Firstly a knee injury picked up in a jetski accident forced him to miss the US Open, and as a result, the year-end championship. He picked up a third career title in St Petersburg upon his return but his luck was to take another major turn for worse early in 2007.
After a solid start to the season and a fourth round appearance at the Australian Open, Ancic was struck down with mononucleosis ahead of a Davis Cup tie in Germany.
Looking like death and thinking he was suffering from a mere flu, Ancic battled his was through two rubbers and even headed to off to play Rotterdam after the tie’s conclusion. The fact that he was able to make it on court let alone take a set off Tommy Haas in his opening match spoke volumes for the player’s battling spirit.
In Rotterdam he was forced to retire after four games of his opening match against Andreas Seppi and by that point knew something more serious was up.
This was no flu:
“In Germany I was playing while sick, which was definitely a mistake, though I didn’t know it at the time,” he said.
“So it put a big strain on my heart. Added to the mononucleosis, it meant that I was close to never playing again.
“In the beginning I could not walk. I was sleeping 18 hours a day. I was completely tired, something which is difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t had this thing.
“It was not easy, just lying there watching the Grand Slams go by, Paris, Wimbledon, because I like to compete and I am young.
“There I was, 22 years old and at the peak of my career and I couldn’t even walk.
“After so many months of lying in bed, when I started my first practice I was only able to work for half an hour. When I was eventually able to start running for 10 minutes twice a week, that was a big step.”
The first comeback trail began prior to the 2007 US Open but, just as with 12 months earlier, a freak injury ruled him out of that tournament with a barbell dropped on his shoulder during a gym session causing a small fracture.
Ancic looked to be getting back on track with a quarter-final appearance at the Madrid Masters in October but with his immune system still ravaged by the mononucleosis, he was struck down by a stomach virus at the start of 2008.
He lost nine kilograms and was forced to sit out the first two months of the season.
In Marseilles, his first tournament of the year, he beat Tsonga, Soderling and Baghdatis before going down to Andy Murray in the final.
It looked like he was finally on the road to recovery for real. A semi-final in Zagreb was followed by a third round in Indian Wells and a last 16 appearance in Miami. He was showing he could mix it with the very best and those American spring events included wins over top 20 players Fernando Gonzalez, Juan Monaco and Murray.
The latter typified Ancic’s new style with him pretty much out-Murraying Murray in one of the ugliest tennis matches you are ever likely to witness. The streaky serve-volleyer was no more. Ancic was now a pragmatist who could grind with the best of them.
Wimbledon that year allayed any fears that he had dispensed his attacking style for good. The net-rushing was back as Ancic one more reached the quarter-final with hard-fought wins against David Ferrer (in the dark) and Fernando Verdasco.
Once again Roger Federer was there to end his progress but for a player who had been so beaten down by injury and illness for the previous 18 months, it was a remarkable tournament.
Ancic was now ranked just outside the top 20 but that Wimbledon was to prove his last hurrah.
The glandular fever returned with a vengeance and he was forced to sit out both the Beijing Olympics and the US Open.
Although he had picked up a bronze medal at the Athens games in doubles, partnering Ivan Ljubicic four years earlier, missing the Olympics hit him hard.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
An encouraging start to 2009, which featured a third round appearance at Melbourne and a final in Zagreb, proved to be yet another false dawn and by the start of 2010, battling against a back problem as well as the virus, Ancic was competing at Futures level.
Ranked 422 in the world, Ancic played his final match against Dani Koellerer in Munich last May.
He had been awarded a wildcard into Queens the following month but was unable to take it up although shortly before he had seemed confident about making yet another comeback.
Ancic was awarded a law degree from the University of Split in April 2008 and when he took up a position with law firm in Zagreb late last year it was clear the game was up. The official announcement this week was a mere formality.
Although he must have known it was coming for some time, he was clearly moved and spoke with tear-filled eyes at the press conference:
“After consulting with doctors I made my decision. I am aware that my body can no longer follow the rhythm of today’s tennis and there was no choice but to end my career. The decision was difficult, extremely difficult.
“I’ve always aspired to perfection, and when I realized that my body was no longer able to play the tennis that I wanted, there was no other solution. I have always fought, fell and rose up, but I’ve always been honest with myself.”
Several players have announced retirements only to return to action mere months later but for Ancic there will be no going back.
It’s pointless to play “what if?” but it’s also fun so let’s do it anyway.
What could Ancic have achieved if he’d stayed fit and healthy?
With his talent and the mental strength he showed in 2006 he could at the very least have established himself as a top 10 player for years to come.
If we’re talking about reaching the very pinnacle of the sport and winning slams though, there’s no point in exaggerating. On hardcourts and clay Ancic was never likely to reach the very highest level.
There were simply too many flaws in his ground game and if he had an off-day with his serve he was always liable to be exposed by better baseliners. The ubiquitous slow, high bouncing surfaces and heavy balls of the modern game certainly wouldn’t have helped matters.
However, Wimbledon would have been a completely different story. If he were fit today Ancic would rank among the top five grass court players in the game on past achievements alone.
While that’s a damning indictment of the tour as a whole as much as it is a compliment to Ancic, the fact remains that he would have been a factor at the business end of SW19 pretty much every year.
Much would depend on how he’d match up against Rafael Nadal on grass but he’d almost certainly pose the Spaniard a lot more problems on the surface than pretty much anyone other than Federer.
With so little real competition out there at the moment, a Wimbledon final at the very least would have been a realistic prospect.
Regardless of whether he had a slam in him he will be missed.
In a sport so dominated by baseliners he offered something different and although he had long ceased to be a pure serve-volleyer in his later years, his willingness to get to the net and finish off points separated him from the herd.
But like I said, “what if?” is pointless and Mario Ancic now moves on to a new phase in his life.
“It will take a long time until I find the peace to be able to watch top tennis, but time heals all wounds,” he says.
“I knew this moment would come so I was therefore prepared and educated. Now I await new challenges.
“The energy, desire and will that I have invested in tennis I will now to shift into something new. Sport and tennis for me are part of life and always will be close. I am leaving peaceful and fulfilled.”
Fulfilled? I don’t think anyone believes that for a second, least of all Ancic. We can only wish him better luck in his new life. Goodbye Mario. Thanks for the memories.