Ljubicic's a bit of a late bloomer

Published April 2, 2006

KEY BISCAYNE - By tennis standards, Ivan Ljubicic is an old dude.

Yet at 27, he's playing better than ever.

And in this sport, that's rare.

The 6-foot-4 Croat, who boasts a powerful serve that might rival that of American star Andy Roddick, enters today's Nasdaq-100 Open final against Roger Federer ranked sixth and with his confidence at an all-time high. He's 25-3 this season, placing him second on the ATP Tour in match wins behind only No. 1-ranked Federer, which isn't bad for a guy who for years was considered somewhat of a tennis journeyman.

"I believe he plays more patient now, more confident," Federer said.

Ljubicic, who turned pro in 1998, never finished a season ranked higher than 22nd before 2005, when he went 57-24 with two singles titles and helped Croatia win its first Davis Cup title. The tournament's sixth seed owns two more championships after five events, and reached the final here with a 6-1, 6-2 demolition of third-seeded David Nalbandian Friday.

"It seems he's improved his forehand obviously in defense and offense," Federer said. "His backhand was always his weapon. I believe it's a combination of many things that make him play so much better. He was always a very dangerous floater in the draw, top 30 and so on.

"But to make it to the next level, I guess you've got to have some stamina, and that's what he's showing right now."

Ljubicic has had mixed results against Federer. He's 3-9 all time, but has lost the past six meetings, all of which have taken place since the start of 2005. In three of those recent defeats, however, Ljubicic took Federer to the final set (two went to last-set tiebreakers). "I think the only thing that I have to do against him is just to stick with my game," Ljubicic said. "And if he's better, he's better, which he's probably going to be.

"But I just want to keep my game plan and not go left-to-right, not go for too much, not do some things that I'm not doing so far."

CHALLENGING: Player challenges of line calls, which professional tennis debuted at this event, have resulted in 52 reversals of 154 challenges.

In her straight-set win over Maria Sharapova on Saturday, Svetlana Kuznetsova challenged a Sharapova ace that was ruled to have hit the line. The call was overturned after the stadium's giant screen TV showed it was out by about an inch.

BY THE NUMBERS: Sharapova's average first-serve speed Saturday was 98 mph. ... Federer has won 47 consecutive matches on U.S. soil.

... Kuznetsova beat five seeded players on her way to the title. ... Federer has reached three Nasdaq-100 Open finals (he is 1-1). Kuznetsova has won two all-Russian finals (she is 2-1).

TODAY ON TV: Nasdaq-100 Open men's final, Roger Federer vs. Ivan Ljubicic, noon, Ch. 10.