Determined To Succeed
Ivan Dodigrnbecame a professional tennis player through sheer hard work. Now, he isrndetermined to stay in the Top 50 of the South African Airways ATP rnRankings.
The crowd inside the Dom Sportava in Zagreb are on their feet, wild with excitement as Croat Ivan Dodigrnis one point away from winning his first ATP World Tour title, the PBZ rnZagreb Open. Dodig chooses the two balls he will serve with and steps uprnto the baseline. No one knows for sure what thoughts must be racing rnthrough the 26 year old's mind at this moment. But it is safe to say, rnfor Dodig, it must seem like a very long way from when he was forced to rnsleep in bus stations, airports and in an old Opel car, while trying to rnscratch out a living on the lower rungs of the tennis tour.
Now Dodig locks in the spot he will serve to, begins his motion andrnblasts an ace out wide past Michael Berrer's outstretched forehand. rnWith a look of disbelief and joy, Dodig turns his back to the net and rnraises his arms in triumph as the crowd break into applause. Then, with rnall those emotions swirling inside of him, he hurls his racquet high up rninto the crowd. In the din of madness, amidst the celebrations, Dodig rndid not hear the chair umpire call "OUT".
"This is some special guy."An overrule of the Croat's ace.
At first, Dodig pleads, then protests, and finally, realising that rnhis case is useless, hangs his head on the net in despair. As if his rnlife has not been hard enough, now Dodig has to try and compose himself rnand find a way to summon all his concentration once more. Not to mentionrntry to get his racquet back.
"Irnwas in shock," remembers Dodig. "After the first match point I did not rnknow how to react. I came to the net but there was no [Michael] Berrer, rnand I turned to the umpire and saw that he called out. Then I started rnthinking, 'where is my racquet? What should I do now?'"
"I was live streaming the match from Prague," says Dodig’s coach, Martin Stepanek.rn"He served a great serve out wide and I started jumping in my room. I rnwas so happy for him. All the emotions of all that hard work. Then, rnthere is silence and I saw the umpire signaling out. I could not believernit and I was thinking what is going to happen now? It might happen thatrnhe can lose it. I was shaking."
What happened next was a second serve, which Berrer returned and rnthen struck a good approach, followed by a great half volley drop shot rnto save the match point.If Dodig's body language could communicate, it would be shouting extreme anxiety in high definition.
"If I won some matches, I would have a chance to play more tournaments."
Goran Ivanisevic was there as a commentator.
"I was there commentating for television," says Ivanisevic. "The rnway he [Dodig] played in Zagreb from the first to last match was rnincredible. He asked me for some tips on how he should play finals. He rnactually played everything that I told him. I was really surprised the rnway he was listening. You know, this is some special guy. The way he rnachieved everything by himself, with nobody really helping him, while hernwas struggling for a really long time is incredible."
What Ivanisevic is alluding to is what most players on the ATP rnWorld Tour have known about Dodig. The stories are the stuff of dreams. It is even rumoured that he once had to sleep under a bridge because he rncouldn't afford a hotel.
"He never had money and what he accomplished is amazing, and I am giving him the biggest respect there is," says countryman Lovro Zovko.rn"I think that is where his big heart comes from on the court. He never rnquit on anything and every match he played he tried to play his best rntennis. And it was not easy at all for him. Now, he is willing to help rnothers because he knows how it is when you have to count every cent thatrnyou spend."
"I had a little bit of a tough time in juniors and Futures," rnrecalls Dodig. "I had some financial situations after the war, but rnunfortunately, I did not get any support. I was fighting in some Futuresrnto earn some money. It was very hard for me because I knew that if I rnlost there was small chance that I could go to the next tournament. If Irnwon some matches, I would have a chance to play more tournaments. rnSometimes it was good, sometimes [it was] not so good. I was taking carernof every Euro. I had many tough situations in tournaments having to rnplay without money and many times without anywhere to sleep."
Back to the Zagreb final.
Locked at deuce, with the match momentum suddenly shifting like a rnfault line erupting, Berrer looks like a death row inmate just granted arnlast minute pardon. What possesses Dodig to do what he does next is rnanybody's guess. But it was plainly obvious that Dodig was going to rnstrike the first blow. A serve-volley catches Berrer off guard and Dodigrnwins the point.
"He made a big step up, when he began travelling with Martin Stepanek."
Match point, again, for Dodig.By all accounts, Dodig got his big break, at an academy ironically called, BreakPoint in Halle, Germany, where Viktor Troicki and Jarkko Nieminen train.
"I was around World No. 500 or so and I decided to go to Halle," rnsays Dodig. "I knew it would be very tough, but there I got great rnsupport from the people. Since then many important moments in my life rnhave happened.”
Jan de Witt directs the academy. And years of experience told him rnthere was plenty of work to be done before Dodig was ready to have a rnbreakthrough.
"I saw a great person and a great athlete with more will to work rnand succeed than most other players," recalls de Witt. "But his body rnwasn't ready to take the pressure of playing full-time and travelling. rnHe was a strong man before he came to BreakPoint, but unbalanced. He hadrnto get more flexible. While working on his fitness - especially his rnback - we used the time to improve his backhand to become a weapon and rnadded the missing serve to his arsenal. In general, his serve was great rnwhen he came to us, but that one extra serve helped to make the rnothers more effective. I saw him be a Top 100 player, with a shot to Toprn50, if things went well. Then he made a big step up, when he began rntravelling with Martin Stepanek."
"Thernthing is that he became more calm and more focused," states BreakPoint rncoach Stepanek, who would become Dodig's full-time tour coach. "He does rnnot have to worry about not having someone with him on the tour and he rnhas some financial security now. I believe in Ivan for many reasons, butrnmainly because he is a guy with an unbelievably big heart - one of the rnbiggest fighters on the tour. And he is not afraid to play on the big rncourts with the best players. You could see in his eyes there is rnsomething in him."
Rafael Nadalrnmust have seen that character trait of Dodig as well, when the two men rnsquared off against each other in the second round of the Rogers Cup in Montreal last year. Dodig stood toe-to-toe with Nadal and emerged the victor 1-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(5).
Says Stepanek, "This year will be quite special for Ivan, as last rnyear, at the age of 26, he made his biggest step entering deep in the rnTop 100 [in the South African Airways ATP Rankings]. As many tennis rnplayers know, the second year is the most tricky as all the players knowrnyour game already, with this some pressure comes as well. To be ready rnfor this, Ivan needs to be physically and mentally better prepared than rnlast year. Our biggest focus will be on the physical part, to be fit andrnready to compete the whole season, especially the second part of the rnseason."
"I must keep fighting even harder, if I want to become a good tennis player..."
rn"He likes being on the tour," says Ivanisevic. "And he is going to rnmake his opponent miserable because he will have to work for every rnpoint. He appreciates everything about the tour. For sure, there are rnsome things that he can improve. Sometimes he tries too much. But the rnmain thing is that he listens and he is always asking for advice. He rnlikes to learn and he is going to learn even more."
"I learned in the Futures and Challengers that if you fight 100 perrncent of the time you will always earn your chance," claims Dodig. "Now,rnI must keep fighting even harder, if I want to become a good tennis rnplayer and get my chance against the best players in the world."
rnSpeakingrnof getting another chance, Dodig got his second match point versus rnBerrer in last year's Zagreb final. The two men rallied back and forth rnuntil Berrer approached the net. A backhand pass by Dodig down the line rnsealed the victory. And this time there was no overruling the ball out.
"I saw it on television and was extremely happy for him," says de rnWitt. "I don't know of many players that deserve this moment like Ivan.
Having the support from his childhood idol Ivanisevic was inspirational to Dodig.
"Goran supports us and he is really special for us," admits Dodig. rn"It is always a pleasure for us if he can be around. Goran gives us rnadvice because he has had so many experiences."
De Witt believes, "Ivan Dodigrnis a very good role model for many young kids, who dream about becomingrna star and have to live with hard times and many setbacks. Ivan is a rnguy who went down, but always stood back up."
They say that it is not whether you win or lose that counts, but rnhow you play the game. If that much is true, then Dodig will always be arnwinner, because he gives the game everything he has in the tank on rnevery single day.