The Official Magazine Of The ATP
Inaugural Issue 2002
A MAN FULFILLED
BY RICHARD EVANS
With his father suffering chest pains on match point and his mother too nervious to watch, Goran Ivanisevic crossed the thin line between disaster and triumph to break his Wimbledon hoodoo. Now he is simply known as "The No. 1 Croat."
It was the sports story for all time - the washed-up nearly man, fatalistic and funny, loved and pittied, rousing himself from the depths of No. 125 in the world to fulfill a lifetime ambition: Win the greatest tennis tournament on earth.
"Wimbledon Champion," a dazed Goran Ivanisevic kept repeating on that unforgettable Monday afternoon at the All England Club. "I am Wimbledon Champion, I cannot believe it. Now, nothing matters. Now I can die. I am Wimbledon Champion."
And so he was, unquestionably so - though Kipling and those sporting gods who decide where to draw that thinnest of lines between triumph and disaster had their stencils poised in heart-stopping fashion in front of the wildest, youngest crowd Wimbledon Centre Court had ever seen. In this delayed men's final, Ivanisevic double-faulted twice on match point before defeating Patrick Rafter in a five-set epic, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7.
You don't double-fault twice on match point in a Wimbledon final and win unless the fates are with you and this time, as the Bedouin chief said to Lawrence, "it is written." It was written in the stars; it was written in the rain clouds that stopped Tim Henman in his tracks on a fateful Friday evening; it was written in the way that Ivanisevic rose above himself and his past disappointments to succeed long after all but his closest admirers had written the final word and closed the book.
Goran's lifelong ambition had been singular in its purpose: He wanted to win a tennis title with a name that reverberates around the world as the pinnacle of achievement. Though success at Wimbledon may be considered a birthright to Americans and Australians, victors of other nationalities become instant icons. In the case of Manolo Santana, the Spaniard's victory in 1966 inspired the curmudgeonly old dictator Generalissimo Franco to honor the new champion with a grand reception at the official palace.
If Santana's triumph was a big deal for Spain, it pales in significance when compared with the outpouring of glee and emotion that spread throughout the length and breath of Croatia when Ivanisevic won match point and collapsed sobbing onto the scarred grass of Centre Court. Goran Ivanisevic was almost certainly responsible for more tears of joy than anyone else througout 2001; Jennifer Capriati had done her best in winning the Australian Open, an extraordinary story of fortitude and courage, but for a stunning, out-of-the-blue, knock-me-down long shot, Goran's achievement was unbeatable.
But no one in Croatia needed reminding of that. Goran has been a hero to his people ever since he battled through heat and dust to gain the fledgling nation its very first Olympic medal, a bronze, at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. It soon became clear that there was more to the young man than the moody, amusing, racquet-smashing young talent who kept pounding his way into Wimbledon finals and blowing it. In the early, 90s, he would travel back home to Split, Croatia between tournaments as war engulfed his country, hearing firsthand from school friends what was going on. He offered to help but they told him, "Go out and win tournaments. Give us something to smile about."
The importance of that task should not be underestimated. Those of us manning the phones at ATP events in 1991 and 1992 will not readily forget the frequency of the calls from Split and Zagreb. "I need Goran, please," said the caller. "Don't you have a war going on?" they were sometimes asked. "Yes," came the reply. "But it is very important to us to know if Goran wins."
He was an inspiration of considerable stature and, as the chances at Wimbledon came and went, they stayed with him, sharing his grief and urging him to go and try again. And when, finally, he succeeded, the country came to a standstill.
"It is incredible what Goran has done for Croatia," said Zvonimir Boban, another national hero, who captained the Croatian soccer team that finished third in the 1998 World Cup. "He has made everyone so happy here. A whole nation united. He has everyone behind him. Now he is the No. 1 Croat."
And Boban wasn't simply talking about sport. Such was Goran's level of fame and influence after his Wimbledon triumph that a group of patriots got Goran's support for a petition demanding that a Croatian general not be sent to The Hague to stand trial for defending his country against Serbian terrorists. The incident underlined the fact that it was virtually impossible to get any credibility for anything in Croatia last summer without Goran's say-so.
I flew to Split three days after that memorable Monday and found Ivanisevic on his boat as it slipped back into port under the cover of darkness, returing from a 48-hour head-clearing trip with his girlfriend, Tatjana Dragovic, around the beautiful Dalmatian Islands. This time there were only four of us to greet him, but as Goran emerged from the cabin wearing a singlet and shorts and a crumpled sun hat, his eyes searched the wide expanse of the marina as though he was reliving the moment three days before, when almost 200,000 people, about three-quarters of the city's population, turned out to greet their favorite son.
"It was the greatest feeling, unbelievable," said the new Wimbledon Champion. "This city is so special. I knew they loved me, but this was soemthing else. When I play bad, they feel bad, but now we can all celebrate."
Then he settled back on the top deck of his Princess Class cruiser and talked about his triumph, "It's true, this time I was very calm," he said. "After feeling I did not belong on the tour for many months last year, everything started to come together, and I sensed the attitude toward me in the locker room start to change. 'Goran is back' was the feeling. And I felt it too.
"Then I changed racquets at Rosmalen, just a week before Wimbledon. Crazy thing to do after all these years, but Head had been at me to change and, really, it helped my shoulder because the new frames are not so stiff. Then, after the first round at Wimbledon [he beat Lars Jonsson in straight sets]. I knew everything was okay. And I got lucky, sure. The rain came at the right time against Tim Henman, everything was good for me and, for the first time at Wimbledon, I felt as if God wanted me to win."
God was not the only one. The extent to which Srdjan Ivanisevic put his life at risk to support his son at Wimbledon only becomes apparent after a couple of glasses of the white wine that the 59-year-old rarely drinks - despite a 400-year history of wine-growing in the family.
We knew that the gray-haired electronic-engineering professor had been warned by his doctors not to travel to London for so stressful an occasion following a near heart attack two years ago. But no one knew how close Srdjan came to suffering one on two occasions during the Winbledon fortnight until he turned to his wife, Gorana, and said, "I haven't told you this before and I'm not going to say it again, so listen well.
"It was after the Marat Safin match," he began. "I went back to the house we were renting nearby and lay down to recover from the excitement when I felt this pain in my chest and then in my back, which is a very bad sign. So I put a pill under my tongue as I had been told and lay down. After a time, the pain passed. Then after the second match point in the final, I feel pain in the chest again. You can imagine what I was going through. So I quickly took another pill and was okay, although Niki Pilic, sitting next to me, said afterward he was sure I was going to die."
The more one delves into the remarkable tale, the more it becomes clear that Ivanisevic was aided in his quest for sporting immortality by some remarkably selfless family support and a nod or two from those angels he insisted were on his side.
Mrs. Ivanisevic, the Director of Social Security, where she controls the distribution funds for Split's medical services, listens to all this calmly. "I wanted only two things," she says, "that Srdjan survive and that Goran lose to Tim Henman if he was not going to win the title. I could not have taken another defeat in the final."
Then, when her husband went inside to supervise the next course of grilled local fish cooked in olive oil, she turned to me and said, "You know, I could not stop him going. He had had quite enough with my problems the previous year. I had five operations for breast cancer."
Add to that her daughter's successful three-year battle against leukemia, which was the first cause Goran fought for with his tennis racquet, and then the brutal war, which was the second, and it becomes quite clear just what kind of a minefield the Ivanisevic family needed to weave through to bring such joy to the nation.
The night before, we had strolled down the Riva, the broad avenue bordering the seafront where Roman Emperor Diocletian built his palace 1,700 years ago. The emperor started out as a Dalmatian foot soldier in Split (the locals have long been known for their endurance and physicality) and ended up as the last of the Caesars, acclaimed by his people. Neither Srdjan nor his son has attained quite that status - but Srdjan has become the second most recognizable man in Croatia. Since June, for instance, he is no longer able to walk 10 yards without someone coming up to offer polite but heartfelt congratulations.
Gorana, though, did not watch her son's triumph. Not even on TV. "I cannot bear it any more," she says. "It is too much for me. I had 20 years of taking Goran to his matches or watching him play and that is enough."
But the support is always there because both parents put enormous store in the strength of the family. "We live together, suffer together, celebrate together," she says with simple conviction. It is a philosophy that enables her to laugh when she notices a smudge of lipstick on the upper sleeve of her husband's yellow shirt. "It was just a greetings kiss," Srdjan teases.
The kissing started long ago for this devoted couple, whose families owned large tracks of land before Tito's communist regime engulfed Croatia after World War II. Both husband and wife were heading for as prosperous a life as was allowed under the communists long before their second child was born 29 years ago. Srdjan was fanatical about electronics and, after studying for two years at the State University of New York at Long Island, wrote a book called Pulse & Digital Technique, which is still used as a primer in Croatian universities.
Taking the pulse of his hyperactive young son on and off the court soon convinced Srdjan that Goran had exceptional ability. "I knew the game well enough," he says. "I played at our local club with Pilic and Zeljko Franulovic [now an ATP Executive Vice President]. although I never wanted to be a professional myself.
"But then I saw just how quick and coordinated Goran was, and how he played shots easily - almost by instinct. So he started working with the club pro, Ladislav Kacer, and was soon so good that he played a match against a 14-year-old when he was just eight. He lost and cried for three days."
Goran Ivanisevic may well cry again, but it won't be over a tennis match. He secured victory in the only match that really mattered to him - the one that finally made him Wimbledon Champion. Now he is a man fulfilled.