Farewell to a giant of Centre Court
26 June 2004
By Alan Pattullo
THIS was the best way for him to go. In the burnished sunshine. On Centre Court. A champion. Another Wimbledon win would have been too far-fetched, in danger of damaging the memory of that extravagant triumph in 2001. "Goran! Goran!" they chanted, harking back to that carnival-style atmosphere of three years ago, when Ivanisevic along with his friend Pat Rafter contributed to one of the finest sporting spectacles witnessed in recent times. Goran goes retaining the love of the Centre Court, able, even, to don a Croatia football top in these sensitive times for the English public as he left the scene one last time.
Having missed the last two years through injury he had completed the duty of a champion, and sought to defend his title. His shoulder has almost flaked off its socket, but he disregarded the discomfort and exceeded the hopes of most by making it through two rounds. And better to go this way, beaten by an eager young turk such as Hewitt, who, despite recent problems, appeared pointed with purpose yesterday. No respecter of reputation, Hewitt respected this one after having completed a stylish and comprehensive victory over Ivanisevic in three swift sets. Both men lingered at the net, Hewitt showing an admirable delicacy in victory by pausing for a cross-net communion with his opponent.
The significance of the exchange could be heard above the noisy throng. This was not a passing of baton between youth and experience since Hewitt, aged just 23, is already the owner of two grand slam titles, one more than Goran. But there was a poignancy in the coming together of the two players who had passed between them the Wimbledon title in 2002. Later, in what was a masterfully conducted press conference, Goran was asked about what they had said to one another. "I told him: Ďyou kick my ass very wellí. He said: ĎI didnítí. He said that it was an honour for him to play with me. When somebody like Lleyton Hewitt says that, you have to be proud. I am proud of everything I did in my career. I have played with all generations. McEnroe, Connors, with young guys like Hewitt, and with Pete [Sampras] and with Andre [Agassi]. And itís great that when I lost I lost to a Wimbledon champion, and a guy who can win anytime if he plays like this."
Hewitt was a fully-qualified spearer of one of Wimbledonís most loved sons, and may now go on to thrill the tennis world all over again. Better Hewitt to have administered the final thrust of the cutlass in this clinical and unfussed manner than for Ivanisevic to have fallen in torturous fashion against the less celebrated Mikhail Youzhny on the first day, which might have happened. Or for Ivanisevic to have signed-off in hackneyed-style on the graveyard of champions on Thursday, when he eventually defeated Filippo Volandri on the notorious court 2. Nothing so passť as that for the wilfully eccentric Goran, who took a proper championís bow after his 15-year career had been applied with a firm full stop in the form of a Hewitt service game won by the Australian to love.
The other statistics were just as grim for Ivanisevic, who has now retired without ever having taken so much as a set from Hewitt in three encounters. He lost these three 6-2, 6-3, 6-4. The gradual improvement counts for nothing now, the incline left to hang forever in the ether now Goran has called time on not only his Wimbledon passion, but also his career. Barring a possible farewell appearance in the Davis Cup for Croatia later this year his last ever game of competitive tennis had commenced at 3.51 pm and by 5.19 pm it was all over bar the pageantry.
Ivanisevic surveyed the circumstances one last time, drank in the applause the way showmen such as he instinctively know how. The entire congregation rose to feet, and in an instant the idea that this was a moment to be shared developed. Even in the press gallery they stood to a man and to a woman in recognition of a spikey Croat who had filled more pages of copy than most. What will we do without you? one reporter later asked, clearly horrified by the insipidness of those riding in behind the sunset-bound Ivanisevic. He in turn thanked his inquirers for "writing good and writing bad" about him. It was impossible not to feel a moistening of the eyes as he gave what amounted to a valediction. "I am going to miss everything," he said. "I am going to miss the guys who I spent so many years with. I am going to miss serving aces on 15-40, 30-40. I am going to miss talking to the umpire - sometimes bad, sometimes good. I gave all my life to this sport. I still donít understand that it has finished. I know itís finished but I donít know itís finished. Itís still mixed in my head a little bit. I am going to think to myself in the next couple of days that I should practise. I am going to have to tell myself: ĎMan, no more practisingí. I am going to have to hide the rackets so I donít go and practise again."
Hewitt did not think to intrude on the day save for the thrashing he politely administered. He now plays the former French Open champion Carlos Moya in the fourth round. Hewitt contented himself with signing some autographs and saluting Kim Clijsters, his fellow tennis-playing fiance rendered presently redundant due to a wrist injury. She might have been the only soul in the packed arena whose sentiments remained with Hewitt throughout the match. But even Clijsters rose to her feet to acclaim Ivanisevic at the end as he revealed the one last great Centre Court exhibition he had promised friends. It turned out to be nothing so startling as the donning of a Croatian top, with a number 10 on its back. A tennis player whose first love was football, this display perhaps fulfilled some fetish going back to teenage.
But a greater fantasy had already been enacted in front of us. Not yesterday, but in 2001, and a peopleís day to remain forever in the memory. Goran has gone but not really. Heís in with the bricks and the ivy at Wimbledon.