How Goran came from nowhere to win Wimbledon
24 December 2001
By Stuart Bathgate
THE Wimbledon triumph of Goran Ivanisevic was not just the highlight of this year, it was also one of the most remarkable sporting achievements ever. Before dismissing that as hyperbole, try to think of another example of a team or individual who won a major tournament after being completely written off.
There have been astonishing comebacks before, of course, but they do tend to be from a position of strength. When Manchester United won the European Cup in 1999, for instance, they showed incredible self-belief to score the two last-gasp goals. But everyone knew they were a good team: that was why they were in the final.
As for individuals, there is no denying that Tiger Woods, to name the obvious example, has done far more than Ivanisevic. If he is to match the feat performed between 25 June and 9 July, though, he will have to do nothing for a few years, fall out of golfís top 100, pick up more than a few injuries - and then come back and blast away his competitors one more time.
Come to think of it, even then it would not be as good as Goranís greatest fortnight. For Woods has been over the course time and time again. He knows what it is like to be a winner at the highest level, whereas before this summer, all that Ivanisevic had experience of was losing Grand Slam finals.
Still not convinced? Well, maybe you just had to be there day after day as the bandwagon got rolling and it slowly dawned on everyone that this crackpot from Croatia actually had a chance of becoming the menís singles champion.
Not that it was particularly foolish for anyone to be sceptical about his chances. A three-time loser in the final, Ivanisevic was well past his best. He was only in the main draw at all thanks to the charity of the All-England Club, which had offered him a wild card as a recognition of his past stature in the game. It all seemed a bit sad at first, watching this once-formidable competitor get ready for the tournament.
True, he had matured mentally and had grown out of the sullen machismo that he had exhibited for most of the Nineties, yet even that appeared to be evidence of his decline.
His humorous asides to the crowd during his early matches and his goofy little TV chats with a fawning Sue Barker - both surely showed that he could no longer even take himself seriously. Around the courts after matches you could see people staring at him in puzzled fashion, as if asking themselves: didnít that man use to be Goran Ivanisevic?
He was the Ghost of Goran, or so we thought, and he really should have shuffled off to his next life instead of hanging around his old haunts. But he insisted on attempting one last shot at redemption, despite the years of failure, despite the flaky temperament, despite having a shoulder that was on its last legs, and legs which were noticeably slower than in 1992, í94 and í98, when he lost first to Andre Agassi and then - twice - to Pete Sampras.
And he came with a certain appetite. As a renowned carnivore, he was asked just before Wimbledon if he had not been deterred from coming to Britain by the foot-and-mouth epidemic. "I canít survive without meat," he replied with a hint of the engaging humour for which he would soon be celebrated. "If I die, I die like a man - eating meat."
THE early rounds gave little indication of what was to come. First he beat an unknown Swede, Fredrik Jonsson, in three sets, and then Carlos Moya, the claycourt specialist from Spain, in four. American teen sensation Andy Roddick was next to go, also in a four-setter, and Goran was through to a last-16 meeting with Britainís Greg Rusedski. It was billed as the battle of the heavy artillery, but it turned out to be almost a walkover. Rusedskiís resistance was limited and Ivanisevic blasted his way into the last eight in straight sets.
Everyone was paying attention now. He had done his good-Goran-bad-Goran interview on the BBC - a cute piece that neatly illustrated the two sides to his tennis personality. He then introduced us to a third side - Emergency Goran, or 911, the one called upon in the direst of situations, to stop Good and Bad falling out with each other and restore some order. There was no emergency in the quarter-final. Ivanisevicís opponent, No4 seed Marat Safin, was in the match just briefly, when he took the third set. Otherwise it was Goran all the way and afterwards, for the first time in public, he allowed himself to dream a little.
"This year Iím playing the best tennis ever I played at Wimbledon," he said. "Now Iíve come so far, to stop will be a big disappointment. So I donít want to stop.
I donít believe Iím going to lose. I strongly believe maybe this is the year. After three finals, nobody believed - even I didnít believe. I said: ĎOK man, youíre finishedí. Now I believe that I can do it. Who knows, you know. Strange things happen."
They certainly did in the semi-final, which stretched out over three days because of rain, and forced the tournament into a third Monday. It was an epic, exhausting match - and that was just for the spectators - but at the end, after five enthralling sets, British hope Tim Henman was beaten, and Goran was in his fourth final.
There were at best mixed emotions among the crowd, most of whom had hoped that Henman would make it through. But the victor was generous at the end, saying his opponent had the game to win Wimbledon and one year - maybe the next, maybe the one after - he would surely have a great chance. For Goran himself, though, destiny lay just a day away.
The final was mental. Centre Court, normally the hushed preserve of the English ruling class and their flunkeys, had been turned over to the riffraff.
The usual audience prepares for a match by sipping Pimms and humming Pomp and Circumstance to itself. This lot, many of whom had queued all night, had been drinking anything they could lay their hands on and were not about to be sedated.
The Australian fans of Pat Rafter outnumbered Goranís barmy army, but this was not really an adversarial occasion. Supposedly separated by their allegiances, the crowd were in fact united by the sheer excitement of being there, of having taken over tennisís inner sanctum for a few hours.
IVANISEVIC, whose shoulder had kept functioning throughout the fortnight only thanks to painkillers, slowly gained the upper hand over Rafter. The first three sets went 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in the Croatís favour, and the title looked like it was in his grasp.
But then Rafter hit back, as Ivanisevic allowed the old doubts to set in. Serving at 3-2 down, Goran lost his composure after two controversial moments - the first a foot fault called by an "ugly, ugly lady", as he indelicately described her later, the second a line call from "a guy who looks like a faggot little bit, you know".
Rafter took that game, then won the fourth set 6-2. The old Goran would have collapsed into a sulk at that point, but this one was determined to keep his date with destiny.
The fifth set went on and on. Three times Ivanisevic had championship points: three times he squandered them. On the fourth occasion, though, he made no mistake, sending down a strong second serve, which Rafter could only put into the net. He had won the fifth set 9-7, and he had won the title nine years after first reaching the final.
This time Goran did collapse - but out of relief and exhaustion rather than despair. His resurrection was complete. He could hardly believe it. We could hardly believe it. A wild card in every sense of the word, Goran Ivanisevic was Wimbledon champion at last.