Ivanisevic promises final display of fireworks
01 January 2003
By David Law in Zagreb
Former Wimbledon champion is battling to regain fitness but insists he still has a few surprises up his sleeve
Goran Ivanisevic has never done predictable, and he is not about to start now.
This is, after all, the man with the unreturnable serve, who reached three Wimbledon finals in the 1990s, and lost the lot. This is the man who was forced to retire from a match in Brighton two years ago because he "lacked the appropriate equipment"; he had broken all of his rackets, in anger, during the match. This is the man who explained that his behaviour was largely dictated by Good, Bad, and Emergency 911 versions of himself.
This is the man who started 2001 renting practice-session tennis balls at German tournaments on the challenger circuit, the tennis version of the Nationwide League, and ended it as Wimbledon champion. But after he suffered a shoulder injury so serious it prevented him defending his title, most people thought he would quit while he was so far ahead, retire to a little Croatian island, and live happily ever after.
Not Ivanesevic. He underwent surgery in May, began a punishing rehabilitation schedule that is still ongoing, and promises to return to Wimbledon this summer.
"I'll be happy to play doubles in February in the Davis Cup tie against America," he says. "If that's possible, I can then play some tournaments in the States and, hopefully, be ready for Wimbledon."
On the day of our meeting, I find him cracking forehands on an indoor clay court encased in a gigantic, plastic bubble at the private tennis club owned by the former Milan footballer Zvonimir Boban, in Zagreb, Croatia.
Three weeks earlier, I had witnessed him jumping hurdles and running 200 metre sprints in early-winter weather just up the road at the Mladost athletics track. We were meant to meet there for our interview the following day. In typical Goran style, he did not show.
"Hey man, sorry about last time," he says in his deepest baritone, offering a bear paw of a hand for me to shake. "I had to go somewhere urgently and couldn't reach you."
It does not matter. Ivanisevic is impossible to stay angry with. Among tennis players, he is one of the most genuine; it is just that he simply does not know what he is going to do from one moment to the next, let alone days later.
As we settle down to talk in Boban's stylish sports café adjacent to the court, everyone is aware of his presence. Here in Croatia Ivanisevic is loved as much, if not more, than any other star, sporting or otherwise. Most nod their head and smile their greetings, before returning to their coffees and conversations, leaving Ivanisevic to his. He might be a national hero but, apart from the money and fame, he is basically a down-to-earth guy from Split, on the Dalmatian coast. People here treat him as such and he appreciates the normality.
So, what on earth is he still doing wielding a racket with that dodgy shoulder?
He smiles. "I ask myself sometimes what I'm still doing on the tennis court, but..." He pauses to think for a few seconds, probably waiting for the three Gorans to sort out the answer. "I owe it to myself and my fans," he explains. "I can't finish my career like this. I have to come to Wimbledon."
Ivanisevic had waited a lifetime to open the Centre Court proceedings this year in traditional, champion-style in the 1pm match on the first Monday of Wimbledon, but, as his opportunity approached, his shoulder injury worsened. A month before Wimbledon, he could barely lift his left arm without pain.
"It was impossible," he says. "At the Davis Cup [in April] I managed to play doubles, but only with great pain. I rested for six weeks and it got even worse. I didn't want to come to Wimbledon and play only one set just because I was the defending champion. I wanted to defend my title the best I could and I was not able to do that. I couldn't serve, so I decided it was time for a surgery."
In the end, it was Andre Agassi, his first Wimbledon final conqueror in 1992, who took his place on the opening day. "It was not easy for me to see him do that, because I always dreamt of winning Wimbledon, coming next year and opening the tournament, but I am always unpredictable; I won Wimbledon and didn't show up!"
His rehabilitation has been a long, grinding process. He says his ground strokes are better than ever, but his serve, the lifeblood of his whole game, is still only 30 per cent of what it needs to be.
"The doctors keep changing their story," he explains. "First it would take six months, then nine, now it's 10. I have to be patient, it's the only way I can fight back."
He is probably not the best patient in the world, I ventured. The observation seems to strike a nerve with Good Goran.
"No, I'm not a bad patient at all," he says. "People, they judge me how I am on the court – a little bit crazy, a little bit different, impatient – but I am different out of the court, I am more patient."
It does not take long for Bad Goran to butt into the conversation. "The doctor said: 'Be patient'," he growls. "I listened to what he said and did everything by the rules. I'm going to be patient for another three or four months, but after that I can't promise what I'm going to do."
If he does get to play Wimbledon in 2003, though, surely that will be that? He shakes his head.
"We will see. I have a vision maybe to play through to the Olympic Games in Athens. It would be my fifth Olympics and I can maybe carry the flag for Croatia," he suggests.
"That is my vision, but I can't plan for the future too much because I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. I'll take it slowly. This year was a strange year, different for me. I had a lot of free time to think."
He also had time to start a family – his partner, Tatiana, is due to give birth to their first child this summer, just in time for Wimbledon – and took the chance to indulge one of his football fantasies.
Ivanisevic had long spoken of his desire to play for his beloved hometown team, Hajduk Split. Thanks to Boban, he got the next best thing.
A couple of months previously, Boban, a key part of Croatia's 1998 World Cup semi-final team, retired from football in a blaze of glory and nostalgia, just up the road at the Maksimir stadium, home of his first team, Dinamo Zagreb.
In tribute, the 1998 World Cup side reassembled for the first time since their heroics in France, to play a World XI consisting of players such as Rivaldo, Lothar Matthäus, Jean-Pierre Papin, and the Brazilian goalkeeper, Taffarel.
Fifteen minutes from the end, the action stopped, fireworks exploded in the sky, and 40,000 fans rose to acclaim Boban as he was substituted. His surprise replacement trotted on to the field to an equally rapturous reception. It was Ivanisevic.
With his first touch, he went round a defender, and clinically slid the ball, left-footed of course, past the sprawling dive of Taffarel. The crowd went wild and Ivanisevic ran around the pitch swirling his shirt around his head.
Wouldn't he like to retire in a similar style to Boban?
"I have in my head how I want to stop tennis and it's going to be unique," he says. "Nobody's going to stop tennis like I'm going to stop."
"No, no, because then it's not going to be a surprise," he insists. "But it's going to be unique. All my life I have done strange and crazy things, and I think I have a right to stop my career like that."
No one would have it any other way.