10 July 2001
WILD THING: THE HOMECOMING - HVALA TI GORANE!
150,000 FILL THE STREETS OF SPLIT TO SAY THANKS TO THE 'NEW KING OF CROATIA'
THE biblical tresses were cut off long ago but yesterday, as Goran Ivanisevic returned to Croatia, he looked every inch a messiah.
The tall, triumphant figure was physically lifted by the cheering masses, hands outstretched as if he possessed healing powers.
But that is exactly how Croatians view their new hero. He is the ultimate symbol of pride and hope for a country scarred by war.
The welcome was so great that even the super-confident Goran looked overawed.
Despite his towering 6ft 4in frame, he seemed like a young boy unwrapping a present he had not even dared dream about.
Suddenly he was home and overdosing on the realisation that winning the men's tennis title at Wimbledon meant the world to his people.
If you want emotion, Goran's your man.
A smile never left his newly-shaven bronzed face and the tears gave his eyes a constant glisten.
But Goran the Entertainer was never very far away. In the centre of Split, standing on a specially-erected stage, he stripped off to his blue underpants, throwing his jeans and T-shirt into the crowd. He roared: "I forgot to do that in the semis and the final, so here you are."
A public holiday was declared and 150,000 people turned out for a party on a scale Split - Goran's home town - had never seen before.
The 29-year-old star had flown from Britain in Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone's private plane.
As the jet touched down, fireman turned on their hoses in his honour.
Queen's hit song "We are the Champions" roared from the speakers and a ten-foot hand-scrawled notice, pinned to the terminal building, simply read: "Hvala ti Gorane!"
Hvala ti means thank you in Croatian.
Goran then boarded a ferry, where he was met by his mother Gorana and supermodel girlfriend Tatjana Dragovic.
Flags proclaiming "I'm Genius" decorated the deck and televisions were positioned throughout the boat showing re-run after re-run of Monday's Wimbledon final.
No-one could get enough of their hero as his deep Balkan drawl was drowned out by a four-man band and the cheers of the crowd.
An army helicopter trailing the Croatian flag circled overhead and a flotilla of more than 100 boats, sounding their horns and letting off fireworks, packed the harbour.
Goran played along with the crowd, putting on every T-shirt that was thrown his way. One had the final Wimbledon score emblazoned on the back above a copy of his tattoo, which features a cross, representing his Christianity, a shark "because they are never sick" and a rose "for love".
At one stage Goran put on a blue basketball singlet.
It had belonged to his friend Drazan Petrovic, Europe's top basketball player, who died in a car crash eight years ago. Goran dedicated his win to him and invited Drazen's mother to join him yesterday. The football club Hajduk Split FC was there in full force. Croatia's most famous footballer Zvonimir Boban, 32, who plays for AC Milan, said: "Goran is the King of Croatia.
"This is Goran's day and he is the greatest person in the country. He is a true Croatian."
The country was not recognised until January 1992, but three months before that Goran refused to play under the Yugoslav flag at a tournament in Sydney. He forced officials to put him down as Croatian and became the first Croatian sportsman to fly the Croatian flag.
Yesterday that was not forgotten.
As Goran approached Split, a mighty roar erupted from the town. The seafront was packed. He bellowed to the crowd: "I am only one of 300,000 people in Split capable of something like this."
Without the sentimentality of the All England Club, which gave their triple runner-up one of the few wild cards at Wimbledon this year, Goran would still have that label which niggled him so much - the greatest Wimbledon finalist never to have won. But he kept alive his dream of lifting the world's greatest tennis title.
This time Goran emerged as king.