Goran Ivanisevic Article


Sporting Life, 5 June 2004

Goran Ivanisevic gazed up at the sun-filled sky over Wimbledon and blinked back tears of disbelief.

He kissed the ball then crossed himself twice. Two double faults and one winning return later, he was the champion.

As Ivanisevic crumpled to the beloved Centre Court surface which had tormented him for so long, the crowd rose to acclaim one of the most popular of all Wimbledon champions.

And probably the most unlikely.

One year earlier, Ivanisevic had been the only non-winner to participate in the Millennium tournament's parade of champions.

The Croat was still playing on but the inference from all sides was clear: our favourite runner-up was destined to remain just that.

As his shoulder crumbled, so had any realistic hopes that Ivanisevic might one day pull out something special and claim the title.

Eight months earlier before his greatest day, Ivanisevic had been contemplating retirement.

With his injury aching and his self-respect not to mention his ranking at an all-time low, he had defaulted out of an end of season tournament in Brighton after smashing all his rackets.

Gloomy Goran had shrugged: "At least in tennis they will remember me for something now.

"They'll say, 'there's that guy who never won Wimbledon but he smashed all his rackets'."

Two weeks before his favourite Grand Slam, Ivanisevic's complete lack of confidence was highlighted by a first-round defeat at Queen's Club to unknown Italian Cristiano Caratti.

"I'd still like to give Wimbledon one more shot," Ivanisevic insisted as the writers penned his tennis obituaries.

"It's tough going from the final of Wimbledon to Challenger events but if I do give up, at least I can say that I tried everything.

"I'm going to see at the end of the year how I'm doing and then decide whether to carry on."

It still seems scarcely believable that three weeks later Pat Rafter was flapping a service return into the net and Goran was proclaimed king of SW19.

Entering the tournament as a wild card with a world ranking of 125, Ivanisevic was tipped for little and probably expected less.

He surprised even himself by seeing off opponents of the calibre of Andy Roddick, Greg Rusedski and Marat Safin, his shoulder threatening to collapse at any moment and destroy his dangerous momentum.

He made sure he had fun while it lasted, ripping his shirt off and enthralling media conferences with tales of how the different splits in his personality were battling to seize control.

The day of his biggest triumph was an unusually raucous affair, rain ensuring 'People's Monday' would bring a blaze of colour to a Centre Court which kept its side of the bargain by serving up two of the game's most popular characters.

The match will go down in Grand Slam history. The tennis veered from the quality to the questionable but circumstance conspired to serve up an atmosphere which may never be bettered.

The late, great English tennis journalist John Parsons called it one of the greatest finals he had witnessed in 44 years of covering the championships.

John McEnroe, legendary conqueror of Bjorn Borg in a 1981 epic said, "It was the greatest final I have ever been a part of".

After spurning three set points - the first two by double faults as nerves and tears threatened to completely overwhelm him - Ivanisevic had won, 6-3 3-6 6-3 2-6 9-7.

The score doesn't tell the half of it. "I'm happy for you mate," said Rafter, when Goran finally picked himself up off the floor.

Goran had won at his 14th attempt. He shook his head and said: "I think I'm dreaming. Somebody's going to wake me up and tell me, 'man, you didn't win'.

"I don't even care now if I never win another match in my life again. This was a dream all my life. Wherever I go I can always be Wimbledon champion. This is the end of the world."

Sadly for Ivanisevic, his second dream of walking back into Wimbledon as its reigning champion proved too tempting to succumb to commonsense.

A decision to delay much-needed surgery on his shoulder backfired and two years of failed attempts to get over his injury would follow.

It began to look increasingly likely that Wimbledon's greatest odds-breaker had lost his final gamble, but Goran was determined to prove people wrong again.

"I don't want to go back to Wimbledon just to take tea," he insisted.

The 32-year-old's planned 2003 return was aborted just two weeks short at the Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club and he would not play another match until this February.

All being well his deliberately steady progress will this time pay off and ensure him this year of that champion's reception three years too late.

"This is definitely my last attempt to return," Ivanisevic insisted recently. "I had to give myself one more chance.

"I want to play fit at Wimbledon one more time and then feel the special atmosphere of the Olympic Games again."

How the Wimbledon crowd crave the chance to pay rich and deserved tribute to one of their favourite champions.

But Ivanisevic need not really worry. Even if another comeback bid were to fail he could stand secure in the knowledge that he had done what he set out to do.

And that Centre Court tradition would continue through the years to come, immeasurably richer for the memory of Goran's extraordinary day.