If things had gone according to his original plan, Mario Ancic would have been playing tennis at the Olympic Games in London in 2012. However, his life took a different course than he expected.
The 6-foot-5-inch Croatian was riding high at the end of 2006. He was already an Olympic bronze medalist, a Wimbledon semifinalist and Davis Cup champion. He was ranked among the top 10 players in the world and was set to have an outstanding year in 2007.
However, just when things looked brightest, a mysterious illness took hold of Ancic, and he spent the next few years trying to overcome it. Initially, he saw his suffering as the worst thing that could happen to him. But he eventually came to see it as the best thing that God the Father could send him.
Ancic spoke with [NCR correspondent] Trent Beattie about his trials and victories in time for the Olympic Games in London.
How did you start playing tennis?
As a little kid, I lived near tennis courts, and my older brother played tennis, so that’s what I wanted to do as well. I played a lot on those courts, and tennis really became something I dedicated myself to completely.
That dedication paid off with some very impressive results, including a victory over Roger Federer at Wimbledon when you were only 18.
Not many people can say they’ve beaten Roger at Wimbledon, so you have to really have some things going for you in order to make that happen. One of those things for me was that it was my first Grand Slam tournament. When you’re young, you tend to play more freely and fearlessly, so that helps.
Wimbledon’s grass courts were also helpful, because they tend to favor the serve-and-volley game I like to do. This is one of the reasons Wimbledon is my favorite tournament in the world. It really matches well with how I like to play, which is also how my countryman Goran Ivanisevic liked to play. He won Wimbledon in 2001, so he had some good advice to give on how to play there in 2002.
What are your other top memories?
In 2004, I was able to reach the semifinals at Wimbledon, and then, later that summer, I won the bronze medal in doubles with Ivan Ljubicic at the Olympics in Athens. The summer of 2004 was very memorable for me, and I got a lot of confidence to take with me as I played more on the professional tour.
The greatest memory of my career was winning the Davis Cup with my teammates for Croatia in 2005. Davis Cup is similar to the World Cup for soccer, except that it’s played in four rounds over the course of a year rather than in one month. We won the final round against the Slovak Republic, and the inspiration from that victory carried over into the next year, 2006, which was my best year overall.
Things didn’t go too well in 2007, though, did they?
Everything had been going so well in 2006. I was ranked among the top 10 players in the world and was looking forward to what 2007 would bring. Little did I know that it would bring the toughest struggle of my life.
Early in 2007, I was feeling very tired at times, but I tried not to let it affect my game, and I kept on playing. I especially wanted to succeed in Davis Cup, where there is enormous pressure to represent your country well. However, I felt very sick during a Davis Cup match against Germany and was hospitalized. The doctors weren’t sure what was wrong with me, so I couldn’t get an accurate diagnosis. I was just very tired, with occasional nausea and fever, so I was forced to rest for long periods of time.
Nonetheless, I started to practice and even played matches before I was completely better. This wasn’t the right thing to do, and it actually made the situation worse overall. I kept trying to come back over and over again, but it wasn’t with enough rest behind me. I didn’t want to deal with my illness, which turned out to be a bad case of mononucleosis.
Some guys on the tour have told me jokingly that I can be very hardheaded. This is true, so I think God used the mono to really talk to me. He was inviting me to take up my cross and follow him on a daily basis. This is not something I had thought of doing before, because my whole focus was on playing tennis well. I was willing to suffer in training for a match victory, but was unwilling (or even unaware) of how to suffer in life for a spiritual victory.
At some points, I was so weak that I could barely jog a short distance without losing my breath. I lost weight and had to spend more time resting. This was a big challenge for me because I was so used to flying around the world to play tennis. When you go from that to staying at home all day, sometimes in bed the whole time, it was almost unbearable for me.
I remember being very angry about the situation. I was irritated that God would allow this to happen to me. I asked, Why me? Why now? Why this at such a young age? I was only 22 when the mono started, and I was very committed to playing tennis. I had put a lot of work into it and expected to see more good things come out of it. I didn’t understand why I was being prevented from playing the game I loved.
What was the turning point for you, as far as accepting the mono?
I can be very stubborn, so it took a long time for me to come around. The illness plagued me throughout 2007 and recurred in 2008. I pulled out of a lot of tournaments, including the Olympics. I remember literally having everything ready to go — I was all set — but just before departing on the plane, I felt so weak that I had to stay home and miss out on the competition.
That was a sad thing for me, because the Olympics are fun to play in, even for non-tennis reasons. You get to meet so many other athletes from other sports, and it’s an inspiring thing to be a part of. I had been to the Olympic Games in 2000 and again in 2004, but a third time was not meant to be. Having opportunities like that taken away from you when your heart is set on them can be very discouraging, but if you take it in the right way, it can also be a blessing. That’s the key: how you take it.
Two criminals died next to Jesus on the cross. The first one complained and wanted Jesus to take away his suffering. The second one accepted his suffering and spoke to Jesus (like we still can in prayer), and he was then told he’d be with the Lord in paradise. The outward suffering was the same for both criminals, but the difference was in their rejection or acceptance of that suffering. It’s easy for us to ask for the suffering to be taken away, but sometimes that very suffering is what can draw us closest to God.
I was slowly going from being angry about the situation to accepting it, but it wasn’t quite with the serenity I have today. I had been gradually realizing that I was more than a tennis player; I was a child of God — the God who was going out in search of his lost son. In the story of the Prodigal Son, it says that even when the son was still far away from his father, the father saw him, was moved with compassion and came running to him. This was true with me. Even though I didn’t know exactly how to go back to God, I was seen by him and he led me back out of compassion.
What was one way God led you back?
One important way was through the writings of the saints. I began reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, which really caught my attention. He reminded me of myself: someone who had strayed from God‘s plan for his life. He had a lot of worldly fame, but wasn’t totally at peace. He explained his story so logically on every page that I was motivated to read the writings of other saints and also stories written about them.
St. Francis of Assisi’s life really struck me as well. He was known as one of the holiest men around, yet he didn’t share that same opinion of himself. He saw himself as a great sinner. Those of us who are much less holy than he was tend to think highly of ourselves, so his opinion of himself really moved me. When your standards are higher than just what your neighbor is doing, you aren’t impressed by the good you might do. St. Francis measured himself by God’s standard, so inevitably he would fall short of the ideal, even though he got closer to it than most of us do.
It’s similar with Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She’s well known around the world, but because her home country of Albania is very close to Croatia, she’s even more popular in Croatia than in many other places. She was very humble, had a very low opinion of herself, but in a peaceful way. She was grounded in God’s grace, so she was focused on what was important: serving Jesus in the suffering poor.
Ignatius of Loyola is another saint who has inspired me. He thinks so clearly and knows the importance of prayer. This is something I came to understand better — that prayer is not just a theoretical exercise, and Jesus’ concern for our salvation did not end 2,000 years ago. His concern continues today, and prayer is a vital thing that connects us to his grace, which is just as alive today as it was many years ago.
How did your tennis career eventually end?
After I had attempted my 12th comeback in 2010, I returned to full communion with the Church. I had been an active Catholic earlier in life, but this time, it’s better. I’m trying to live a Catholic life, not just from routine, but from knowledge and appreciation. I understand the Mass much better, which was due in part to Scott Hahn’s book The Lamb’s Supper. I used to go to Sunday Mass without much knowledge of what was happening. Now I go to Mass, not only on Sunday, but as often as possible during the week. When you know what happens in the Mass, you can’t help but want to be present for that.
Once the mono had gone away by 2010, I was in a better frame of mind, which helped me with what I encountered next: back problems. The doctors presented me with surgery as an option, but it was risky, and even if it did work, they couldn’t guarantee that I’d be able to play competitive tennis again. So I decided not to undergo surgery and knew my days of competing were over. It was still somewhat sad at the time, but there was a world of difference, as far as my acceptance of it.
In February of 2011, I made my retirement official, and today I look back on so many great memories with such joy, peace and appreciation. There were so many opportunities I had that most people don’t get. I’ve played around the world on all the big courts, including Center Court at Wimbledon. I’ve played and had victories over all the top players, including Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. In fact, I think Roger is the best player ever to play the game.
I think in one aspect of life or another, most people can say they were unable to do everything they had originally planned on doing. However, I can’t help but be appreciative of what I was actually able to do.
Now you’re building on your tennis experience by studying sports law, right?
That’s right. Even before my illness and injuries, I was interested in law and studied the subject in Croatia. I got the rough equivalent of an undergraduate degree in law in 2008 and have worked in a law firm. Then I decided to pursue the specific category of sports law further. Even though I won’t be playing competitive sports anymore, I wanted to build on something I already had personal knowledge of.
Columbia University in New York has one of the top-ranked law schools in the country, and they have a program for international students like me, so I thought it would be a good thing to take advantage of that. I’m starting classes later in August and expect to learn more about contracts, teams, unions and other things relevant to sports law.
New York City, with 8 million-plus people, is about two times the size of the entire country of Croatia. Obviously, there are some changes I’ll have to get used to, but it’s funny, because I already feel, in a sense, that I’m at home. One way that stood out for me was when I thought of how I’d be seeing the players on tour at the U.S. Open later in August. I thought of myself as the host to them, as if New York was my hometown.
I not only follow tennis, but other sports as well, including golf, baseball and soccer. There’s the simple aspect of sports, but there’s occasionally the added aspect of Catholic athletes as well. We’ve had some interesting stories of athletes in Europe who’ve become priests, and I know you have similar ones here in the U.S., such as the story of Father Joseph Freedy. You also have many other Catholic athletes, including Mark Teixeira, who plays baseball in “my hometown” of New York.
You’ve said that while you won’t be competing on the Columbia tennis team, you will be practicing with them occasionally. What would you like to teach younger tennis players from what you’ve learned through your struggles?
One major thing I learned was not to plan too far in advance. It’s easy to look ahead and think of all kinds of different things you’d like to do, but if you get too focused on things which haven’t happened yet, then present opportunities can elude you. Instead of thinking of how nice it would be to do something way off into the future, it’s more productive to choose smaller goals and take them on, one at a time.
I’d also say to enjoy the daily practices, not just for how they can prepare you for future matches, but also for the practices themselves. It is fun to win matches, but it’s also fun just to hit the ball on the practice court. It’s not necessary to have a pile of trophies in order to get some happiness out of tennis.
This reminds me of my uncle, who is a Franciscan priest. He was a missionary in Africa for many years, and when he came back, he told us fascinating stories of the people he encountered. They were often extremely poor, lacking in the most basic things. Some of them had no running water, no electricity, not even table salt. Just the basic things of life we take for granted they lived without.
While they lacked certain things we thought of as essential, they were very thankful for the Gospel being brought to them. We would use our lack of certain material goods as reasons for not accepting and living the Gospel, but they didn’t do that. Oftentimes, the more things you have, the less time you have for God; and the less things you have, the more time you have for God.
There are so many blessings out there; we just have to open our eyes to see them. It takes more to get the attention of some people (like me), but God uses the exact tools each person needs to come to the realization that he is Our Father — and he has an indescribable love for us as his children.
This article is used with permission from the National Catholic Register, and has been edited for content.