Wildcard Ivanesevic Enters Pantheon of Heroes
29 December 2001
BY OSSIAN SHINE
LONDON (Reuters) - With a broken down shoulder, a triple-figure ranking and a career containing more memories than aspirations, Goran Ivanisevic walked through the main gates of Wimbledon.
The mercurial Croat had turned up on the opening Monday of the 2001 tournament not on the strength of his once-formidable serve but by virtue of a begging letter.
Fourteen days later the wildest of wildcards lay face down, trembling on the sport's most famous turf, sobbing and blinking through tears after a magical fortnight had seen him turn that wildcard invitation into life membership of the pantheon of champions. Three times a losing finalist at Wimbledon, the seasoned war horse's unwavering belief in destiny carried him all the way to a surreal lunchtime final on the third Monday where he buried all his ghosts and re-wrote tennis history with a thrilling five-set victory over Pat Rafter.
Ivanisevic broke British hearts by beating their perennial hopes Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski and scaled unparalleled peaks to become the first wildcard -- playing on a tournament's invitation -- to win a grand slam singles crown.
A runner-up to Andre Agassi in 1992 and to Pete Sampras in 1994 and 1998, Ivanisevic had said from the start that it was his destiny to finally land the world's most prestigious tennis title. ``When they opened the gates on Monday, something was shining, something special happened,'' he said.
``I kept asking God to give me one more chance,'' the Catholic Croat added. ``I think he was so sick of me asking him all the time he said 'okay, here is one last chance let's see if you can win it this time'.''
But Ivanisevic's faith in destiny had not been strong enough to prevent tears of anguish only weeks earlier when yet another woeful performance, this time at Queen's Club, had threatened to scupper his chances of one final tilt at the Wimbledon crown.
He slumped out of the first round of the traditional warm-up event to Cristiano Caratti -- an Italian both older and ranked lower than Ivanisevic.
That straight-sets defeat put his wildcard in the balance and the typically schizophrenic performance at the London club left tears glistening in the Croat's deep brown eyes. ''I thought 'that was it','' said the player who had become a figure to be pitied as his career spiraled into free fall. ``I thought I wouldn't get a wildcard now after playing so bad...but I still hoped.''
Months earlier he had been forced to retire from an indoor tournament on the south coast of England after smashing all his rackets in fury.
At the start of the year he flew to Australia only to deliberately lose in qualifying.
The man once ranked number two in the world was now reduced to playing second-tier events, something his peers had all left behind them in their teens.
While the root of the problem was his agonizing shoulder injury, his explosive temper and unpredictable behavior did not help matters.
Ivanisevic was facing the sad prospect of retiring from the sport having lost the respect and dignity he had fought so hard to earn.
But the Wimbledon committee, appreciating Ivanisevic's efforts in the past, took pity on the engaging giant and awarded him a wildcard, a final farewell to the former Wimbledon stalwart.
Nobody, apart from perhaps Ivanisevic himself, could have predicted what was to come over the next two weeks.
Having admitted to a split personality, the ``three Gorans'' -- Good Goran, Bad Goran and 911 Emergency Goran -- grabbed hold of the lifeline and hung on.
He left a trail of top players in his wake including former world number one Carlos Moya, rising young American powerhouse Andy Roddick, Rusedski and world number four Marat Safin before dismissing Henman in a heart-stopping semifinal that, because of rain, spanned three days.
Just Rafter stood between Ivanisevic and history and the Croat finally prevailed in a match which virtually encapsulated his whole career and multiple personalities.
Good Goran was sublime, Bad Goran cursed, hurled his racket and even clattered into the net with a flying kick after one tight call while 911 Emergency Goran rescued the player at crunch moments.
He finally won Wimbledon at his 14th attempt and climbed into the players' box, his fists pumping, roared on by a 14,000 crowd.
``I don't know if it's a dream and I'm going to wake up and someone is going to tell me you didn't win Wimbledon again,'' he said as horns, bugles and roars of 'Goran, Goran' drowned the players' speeches. But it was no dream; more a fairytale.