Sunday 15 July 2001
Before and after Wimbledon - the inside story of how Ivanisevic prepared for glory by taking a month off from tennis to watch his favourite football team. Next season, he'll play for them
On Sunday, 27 May Pete Sampras loosened up on the practice courts in Paris on the eve of the French Open; Tim Henman made his final preparations for his perennial but short-lived battle with clay and Pat Rafter relaxed in the French capital before contemplating another - possibly final - tilt at Roland Garros. Goran Ivanisevic was nowhere to be found.
That's because he was 800 miles away in the middle of what must be the most unusual preparations for a Grand Slam in the history of professional tennis: a month off to spend at home, or on his boat, watch football and forget about tennis. Normally he spends only two months a year in Split, and only 10 days in the summer. This year was different. 'The best relax of my life,' he called it.
This was his longest break since he first qualified for Wimbledon, aged 16, in 1988. The man who had lost three finals, two to Pete Sampras and one to Andre Agassi, would be ready for one last hurrah in SW19 - provided the organisers gave him a wild-card entry.
On that Sunday, Ivanisevic was in Croatia travelling with fellow Hajduk Split football fans to a vital match against Varteks in Varazdin. The Croatian title depended on it. Tennis was the last thing on the mind of Ivanisevic, a lifelong Hajduk fan. He was determined to enjoy himself with his friends, eschewing the offer of a VIP seat at Varteks' ground to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with 6,000 travelling fans.
The journey was worthwhile. A 4-2 win secured the championship for the first time in six years and the fans from Split danced on the pitch with joy. The moment stirred something in Ivanisevic. 'God, it would be great if I won Wimbledon,' he said, 'and made something like this happen for me.'
His wish - was it a prayer? - was granted. Six weeks later Ivanisevic and those fans, plus scores of thousands more besides, were dancing again when another title came home to Split. The whole country, it seemed, came to a standstill and 150,000 were on the streets to greet him and to party with him. Goran Ivanisevic, Wimbledon champion, was home. 'Thank you for believing in me,' Goran told the multitude. 'I will remember these two days for the rest of my life. We are only 300,000 in Split but we are the biggest in the world. Brazil? Not even Brazil can make something like this.'
Goran, being Goran, then performed his now famous striptease, down to his underpants. At the same time he brandished the jersey of his friend Drazen Petrovic, a Croatian basketball legend who was killed in a car crash in 1993. He declared it 'a holy jersey' and dedicated his win to Drazen.
He spent two days and two nights partying on the holiday island of Brac, at a disco owned by footballer Igor Stimac, then came back to Split to sleep for three hours before leaving with his girlfriend, Tatjana Dragovic, for a 10-day cruise on his boat, Veselka, which is named after his grandmother. Ivanisevic has had only two serious romances. He spent five years with the model Daniela Mihalic, now the wife of Hajduk's coach Nenad Gracan, and now there is Tatjana, also a model, who has been with Goran for three years.
Another woman who has played a huge part in his life is his sister, Srdjana, who contracted Hodgkin's disease after the birth of her first child, Ivan, 13 years ago. Much of Ivanisevic's early career was fired by determination to help pay for her care. Srdjana's treatment lasted three years and, today, she is fine and has had two more children, another son, Goran, aged eight, and three-year-old daughter Lana. Her husband is Vjekoslav Lokica, a promising football coach at FC Sibenik who was recently considered for the post at Hajduk.
Sport, rather than girlfriends, has been Goran's greatest love. After Wimbledon, his football friends came out to salute the hero. Zvonomir Boban, captain of the Croatia team who finished third in the 1998 World Cup, summed it up: 'Goran's just made the Croatian dream.' And Miroslav Blazevic, the coach, reckoned: 'Goran is like Jesus Christ. Because only Goran and Jesus have been resurrected.'
The footballers acknowledged that Goran's win was bigger than their achievement. Boban, himself a very good tennis player who carried out his promise to shave his head if Goran won, had fired him up by sending him this message just before the final: 'You are better than Rafter. But it does not mean you will beat me.' After his victory Goran was very pleased to receive a hand-written fax from Andre Agassi, congratulating him. 'Great player, nice guy,' said Goran.
Football is his passion but Wimbledon remains his first love. 'I have never had a better time on a tennis court,' he said of Monday's five-set thriller against Rafter. 'The atmosphere of the final, that will never repeat itself.'
What a contrast to the atmosphere of his only other appearance in a final this year - a challenger tournament in Heilbronn, Germany, which he lost to Michael Llodra, of France.
His plans now? 'I will play the summer circuit in the US, the Davis Cup tie with Italy, and the Masters Cup in Sydney at the end of the year. Then I will have an operation on my shoulder, which might keep me out of the Australian Open. But I'm coming back to London to defend my Wimbledon title. I love Wimbledon, even when it's raining.'
The Croatians love Goran because he is the real thing, there is nothing fake about him. Split was built by the Roman emperor Diocletian in 300AD, but now the emperor is Goran - now and forever. Success and all the millions of dollars he has made has not changed him. He has a modest two-bedroom apartment in Split on the floor just below his parents. He was brought up on a street that spawned two other top-class players: Nikki Pilic, a Wimbledon semi-finalist in 1967 and Zeljko Franulovic, finalist at Roland Garros in 1970. Some pedigree.
Now, after the party, he does have bigger things planned: a big house for the family. For months there have been planning problems. Now, things may change.
And he is always his own man. When the late president Franjo Tudjman wanted to play tennis against him, Goran said: 'Thanks, but no thanks. Play and lose? No way. Even in cards I don't want to lose.' Not many Croatians had the guts to say no to Tudjman.
But he will realise his dream to play for Hajduk Split. When he offered his Wimbledon prayer, in the moment of his team's May title triumph, he dreamed of being able to play for them. Winning Wimbledon made it possible and last Wednesday a 'contract' was signed. 'All I want is two minutes,' he said, 'two minutes against our biggest rivals Dinamo.' And two minutes he will get next season when Dinamo Zagreb come to Split in the Croatian league. Two minutes from the end, he will come on as a substitute.
Let's hope the fixture doesn't clash with a Grand Slam event.