March 1, 2008: Lucky loser Stakhovsky upsets Ljubicic to win the Zagreb title

On this day in tennis history, Sergiy Stakhovsky was crowned the champion in Zagreb – having gained a place in the main draw as a lucky loser. Find out how.

What happened exactly on that day

On this day, March 1, 2008, world No 209 Sergiy Stakhovsky claimed the title in Zagreb as a “lucky loser” (a player who had been defeated in the qualifications but had entered the main draw at the last minute because another player had withdrawn). The Ukrainian, who beat Ivan Ljubicic in the final (7-5, 6-4), was the first lucky loser to win an ATP tournament since Christian Miniussi won Sao Paulo in 1991.

The players involved: Sergiy Stakhovsky and Ivan Ljubicic

  • Sergiy Stakhovsky, Ukrainian outsider

Sergiy Stakhovsky, from Ukraine, was born in 1986. He turned pro in 2003, but so far, he hadn’t managed to break into the top 100. He had never entered the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament, and his best ATP result had been reaching the quarter-finals in Milan, in 2005. In February 2008, he was world No 209, not far from his best ranking, No 176, reached in 2007. 

  • Ivan Ljubicic, big-serving Croatian

Ivan Ljubicic, from Croatia, was born in 1979. Relying mainly on a deadly serve, he broke into the top 100 in 1999, and he claimed his first title in 2001, in Lyon, after he beat Younes El Aynaoui in the final (6-3, 6-2). He remained a top 50 player until 2004, when he climbed in the top 25 after he had twice reached the semi-finals of a Masters 1000 event, but 2005 was his breakthrough year.

Ljubicic reached the finals in four of his first six tournament, and during the indoor season, he claimed two consecutive titles in Metz (defeating Gaël Monfils, 7-6, 6-0) and Vienna (where he beat Juan Carlos Ferrero, 6-2, 6-4, 7-6), before reaching the final at the Madrid Masters 1000, defeated by Rafael Nadal despite a two-set lead (3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6) as well as in Paris Bercy (lost to Tomas Berdych). Later in 2005, Ivan Ljubicic led Croatia to win the Davis Cup for the first time, defeating Slovakia in the final (3-2). He climbed as high as world No 3, in 2006.

That year, he reached the quarter-finals at the Australian Open and the semi-finals at Roland-Garros, where he was defeated by Rafael Nadal (6-4, 6-2, 7-6). He began 2007 with an important title claimed in Doha at the expense of Andy Murray (6-4, 6-4), but his season was disappointing and at the end of the year, he was world No 18. 

The place: Zagreb Indoor Open

The Zagreb Indoor Open was held for the first time in 1996, won by the local star Goran Ivanisevic, but it wasn’t held between 1998 and 2005. The event was back on the ATP schedule in 2006, and it was won by another local favourite, Ivan Ljubicic, who also reached the final in 2007 (defeated by Marcos Baghdatis). It was held on a fast indoor surface, which favoured big servers and aggressive players in general.

The facts: Stakhovsky takes the title

When Stakhovsky, world No 209, came to compete in the qualifiers of the PBZ Zagreb Indoors, no one would have put any money on him winning the tournament. Furthermore, the Ukrainian was defeated by Blaz Kavcic (world No 396) in the last round of qualification. However, thanks to Michael Llodra’s last-minute withdrawal (the Frenchman had triumphed in Rotterdam the week before and needed recovery), Stakhovsky entered the main draw as a “lucky loser”. 

In the first round, he beat the second seed, the Croatian giant Ivo Karlovic (4-6, 7-6, 6-2). In the second round, he eliminated Viktor Troicki (7-6, 3-6, 6-4), before beating Janko Tipsarevic (3-6, 6-4, 6-2) and Simone Bolleli (6-4, 6-4) to make his way into the final.

On the last day, the Ukrainian faced the local favourite and top seed Ivan Ljubicic, world No 25 and a former top 5 player. Stakhovsky was far from being the favourite on paper, but facing the Croatian in front of his home crowd in Zagreb was even a bigger challenge. However, the 22-year-old “lucky loser” rose to the occasion and finally prevailed (7-5, 6-4). He was the first lucky loser to claim an ATP title since Christian Miniussi, from Argentina, in 1991, in São Paulo.

“It’s hard to say anything, it’s like a dream…The entire week has been amazing and I hope I will have more successes like this in future,” he said.

“Stakhovsky played great, I tried everything, but he just didn’t give me any chances. I had only one chance for a break in the entire match, but failed to grab it,” Ljubicic explained.

What next: Stakhovsky, Ljubicic enjoy memorable highs

Thanks to this win, Stakhovsky would be propelled to world No 123, and he would soon break into the top 100. He would add three other titles to his list of achievements, but his most memorable moment would happen in the Wimbledon second round, in 2013, when, to general astonishment, he would defeat Roger Federer (6-7, 7-6, 7-5, 7-6).

Stakhovsky would climb as high as world No 31, in 2010. He retired at the start of 2022, after defeat in Australian Open qualifying, and was in the news shortly afterwards as he announced his intention to join the Ukrainian territorial army and defend the country.

Ljubicic would never make his way back into the top 10. However, the Croatian would claim his biggest title at Indian Wells in 2010, defeating Andy Roddick in the final (7-6, 7-6). After his retirement in 2012, Ljubicic would become a coach, working with Milos Raonic (2013-2015) and then with Roger Federer.

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