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Ljubicic Shows Heart In Semi-Final Win Over Nadal

Indian Wells, U.S.A.

Ljubicic© Getty ImagesIvan Ljubicic advances to his fourth ATP World Tour Masters 1000 final.

Ivan Ljubicic’s fighting spirit was on display one day after his 31st birthday as he came back to defeat defending champion Rafael Nadal 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(1) on Saturday afternoon at the BNP Paribas Open.

“Probably the best I've ever played in my career,” said Ljubicic, who will play for his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title on Sunday. “I enjoyed it, really… Great, great moment, and the fourth Masters finals, four different Masters, so I hope this one, it's finally gonna be the victory.”   

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The 20th-seeded Ljubicic came under pressure early on, dropping his first and last service games of the opening set, and appeared in danger of a quick exit with the World No. 3 threatening to go up another break in the second. He fought off one break point in the fourth game and four more in the sixth before the tide turned in his favor.

“I think that [sixth] game in the second set when I served down love/40 was the key to the match,” said Ljubicic. “After I relaxed a little bit I started to play more aggressive, and that was it. I think he played some incredible points. I felt like, ‘What is this?’  I mean half volleys, winners off the baseline. It was impressive. I knew if I keep serving well and playing aggressive with my service games I would have a chance maybe in the end to win.”

The Spaniard double-faulted to put him up 5-4 and, after holding easily to draw level with his opponent, Ljubicic assumed the lead for the first time in the match with a break to start the third set. Nadal broke back in the next game, and later rued a missed opportunity on Ljubicic’s serve, as he failed to capitalize on a break point set up by a double-fault in the eighth game.

Ljubicic then pulled off what he called “the best tie-break of my career”. Nadal registered the first point of the breaker, but it was all Ljubicic from there on out. He delivered on his first match point with a winner down the line to clinch the victory in two hours and 34 minutes.

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The Croatian had come close to winning an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title on three different occasions, with runner-up finishes in 2005 in Madrid (l. to Nadal) and Paris (l. to Berdych) and in 2006 in Miami (l. to Federer).

“I would love to have that win tomorrow, because it would mean the world to me,” he said. “I really feel like 2005, 2006 when I played my best tennis I deserved that one Masters [1000]. Tomorrow I'm gonna have another chance to go for it.”

Ljubicic is looking to become the first Croat to capture the title in tournament history, and is also attempting to become the second-oldest winner in Indian Wells at 31 years, 2 days, since 1984 when Jimmy Connors was 31 years, 5 months. The last player over-30 to win an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title was 34-year-old Andre Agassi in Cincinnati in August 2004.

The former World No. 3 will face another first-time Indian Wells finalist in World No. 8 Andy Roddick as he looks to defeat his third Top 10 opponent of the tournament. Ljubicic had accounted for World No. 2 and 2008 champion Novak Djokovic in straight sets in the fourth round.

Nadal had been close to invincible in four appearances in the desert, the only loss in his past 21 matches coming to eventual champion Djokovic in the 2008 semi-finals. He claimed the title the other two years, defeating Djokovic in the 2007 final and Andy Murray in the ’09 final.

“That was an accident today,” said Nadal. “That's my feeling because I was playing enough well to win the tournament. It was an important accident, and I have to learn to try to play more aggressive next time and try to convert the opportunities. But I am happy how I did after the stop [with] being at home a few weeks and [it’s] not easy come back and play with this level, no?”

Nadal had been looking to end a 10-month title drought that began last May, when he hoisted his fifth trophy of the 2009 season at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tennis tournament in Rome. He had since fallen in three finals, last year in Madrid and Shanghai and this past January in the 2010 circuit opener in Shanghai.

With his loss, he will slip to No. 4 from No. 3 in next week's South African Airways 2010 ATP Rankings and Andy Murray will move to No. 3 (from 4).

The 23 year old will still have the chance to finish the 2010 BNP Paribas Open with one title, when he contests the doubles final later Saturday. He will team up with countryman Marc Lopez against top seeds Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic.

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