Goran and his gods ready for SW19
08 June 2003
The 2001 champion is back. Alex Hayes reports on a fragile mind's preparations
His numerous fans will be pleased to know there was no sign of "bad Goran" or "911 Goran" yesterday, as Ivanisevic began preparations for what he describes as "the belated defence of my Wimbledon title". True, this short runaround at Surbiton was only an exhibition match, but it augurs well for the All England Championships that "good Goran" seems to be the dominant force at present.
No matter that the big left-hander has suffered nearly 18 months of injuries, he is determined to have one more go in SW19. "I sometimes ask myself what I'm still doing on the tennis court," he says, shrugging his shoulders in that inimitable style of his, after an exhibition match against Raemon Sluiter of the Netherlands, "but I simply can't finish my career like this. I have to come to Wimbledon again. I owe it to my friends and also to myself."
It was two summers ago, as the popular Croatian achieved his lifelong ambition by winning the most famous grass- court event of them all, that he introduced us to his three alter egos. Ivanisevic had had a wretched season, failing to qualify for several tournaments and having to miss others because of a persistent shoulder injury. Then, out of the blue, he accepted a wild- card invitation to compete at Wimbledon, and promptly set about blitzing his way through the field to lift the crown.
"I always said it was written by the gods that I would win Wimbledon," he says. "I had a bad time before Wimbledon 2001. The shoulder had been bad for some time, but I turned up and won out of nowhere.
So could the darling of Wimbledon do the unthinkable again? No one, least of all Ivanisevic, expects lightning to strike twice, but the similarities between 2001 and now are uncanny. Yet again, he has come into the grass season lacking confidence and practice. And, yet again, he believes that it is his "destiny" to make a comeback at Wimbledon. "I feel that I must play this time because I was unable to defend my title last year," says the man whose latest ailment was a foot operation two months ago following a seashell cut on a Miami beach. "There was no point in coming back and not being fully fit, but now I'm ready."
Yesterday was very much Goran day. Apart from making his comeback, the Croatian also met a young emerging professional who has used him as a role model all his life. Alex Bogdanovic is the latest player to be given the poisoned title of "next British hope". Following a lot of publicity during his early amateur days, the 19-year-old has often struggled to adapt to the pace of the senior tour. Reaching the final of Surbiton is therefore a considerable achievement.
"It's great to reach my first final," he says. "I've played well this week and this is an amazing reward for all my hard work." Bogdanovic got his first real taste of the big time when he represented Great Britain in the Davis Cup tie against Australia in February. Both Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski were injured at the time, so Bogdanovic was thrust into the limelight.
"That was a great experience," he says. The progress I have made since then is clear to see." In a typical British tennis cock-up, Bogdanovic's reward for progressing to the final of Surbiton is to face the busiest day of his young career. Tomorrow's final, against Wesley Moodie, the South African who eliminated Greg Rusedski, will be followed by two qualifying matches at Raynes Park for a Wimbledon wild-card.
"Yes it could be a heavy schedule," was his polite reaction to the Lawn Tennis Association's bizarre scheduling.
Still, at least Bogdanovic was able to watch Ivanisevic play in the exhibition match. "Yeah," he smiles, "that was a real treat. I have modelled my serve on his, so I enjoyed picking up some new pointers."
Mention the possibility of him playing against his hero at Wimbledon and Bogdan-ovic's eyes light up. The luck of the draw will determine whether the dream comes true, but one suspects oppor-tunities are running out. All the indications are that this is a lap of honour, Ivanisevic's chance to say goodbye.
The only remaining question is how Ivanisevic will bow out. The notorious extrovert would not say yesterday, but one sensed it would be worth the wait. "It's going to be a surprise," he insists. "All my life I've done strange and crazy things; I think I have a right to end my career this way."
The first-round draw for the Stella Artois tournament which starts at Queen's Club in London tomorrow has paired Bogdanovic with a qualifier and Rusedski with the American Robby Ginepri. Henman, seeded seventh, has been given a bye.