The Sunday Times
July 16 2000
By John O'Brien
There was a Davis Cup doubles tie to be settled at Fitzwilliam but most had come to watch one player.
BEFORE the second day's play began in Ireland's Davis Cup tie against Croatia yesterday, he was presented to the large gathering at Fitzwilliam as a "true legend". Though the object of the announcer's tribute has never won a Grand Slam title, nor ever led the world tennis rankings, there were few in the crowd who would have readily disagreed.
Goran Ivanisevic, the 28-year old Croat, is living testimony that in sport runners-up are not always forgotten. As playing captain, Ivanisevic led his team onto Court No 1. The crowd gasped when they saw the hulking 6ft 9in frame of Ivo Karlovic, his doubles partner. For Ivanisevic they reserved a combination of awe and respect.
It is not always the winners we remember most. In tennis the world will never forget an emotional Jana Novotna sobbing on the shoulders of the Duchess of Kent after being mugged by Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon final.
Nor will it forget Ivanisevic's heart-rending defeat by Pete Sampras five years on. Beaten by Andre Agassi in '92, and by Sampras two years later, the '98 final was the one Ivanisevic was supposed to win. The Croatian Prime Minister and 13,000 souls on Centre Court willed it to happen but, after a gruelling five-setter, Ivanisevic could not exorcise the demons that were tormenting him.
"I cannot describe it," the habitually loquacious Croat said afterwards. "It is the worst moment of my life."
Franked by an explosive serve, which has been known to reach speeds of up to 140 mph, Wimbledon represented Ivanisevic's best chance of achieving the breakthrough. The defeat by Sampras seemed to mark the end of his days as a contender.
While Sampras awaited a new pretender for his throne, the decline for Ivanisevic was swift and brutal. From being as high as No 2 in the world in 1997, by the end of the following year he had slipped out of the top 16. A disastrous 1999 saw him descend as far as 57th, and in 17 tournaments this year only once has he advanced beyond the third round.
At 28, he is not old - Agassi is 18 months his senior. But Ivanisevic is not mentally as tough as Agassi and even his closest supporters doubt whether he can shed the tag of "best player not to win a Grand Slam tournament".
There is widespread acknowledgement, however, that the ATP Tour would be a poorer place for Ivanisevic's absence. It is not just his talent that would be missed but his personality. In a sport increasingly dominated by big-hitting automatons with character deficiencies, the big Croatian was a breath of fresh air.
Unusually, he was a player equally admired by both supporters and by his peers. Who else could have entered a Wimbledon press room and remarked of the British that, "All they have is tea and rain" and not have caused a furore? Even his regular tantrums gained popular approval. Unlike McEnroe's, they never seemed strained or false and had genuine wit about them.
"Did you call the umpire a monkey?" he was asked after the 1992 Wimbledon final. "Monkey?" replied Ivanisevic. "Which one?"
Without his presence, this Davis Cup match would have held much diminished appeal. Though not a complex game there has always been something about tennis that smacks of elitism. The relative inexpensiveness of equipment must be set against the exorbitant cost of joining most clubs, and Fitzwilliam's history of exclusiveness was a fitting context for this match.
Out of Ireland's four-man team, Ivanisevic could only recognise one name - he had encountered Owen Casey in the Olympic doubles qualifiers in Austria in 1988. Twelve years on, Casey, at 30, is still a key component of Ireland's Davis Cup team. On Friday, Scott Barron was swept aside by the talented 16-year-old schoolboy, Mario Ancic.
Where are the young up-and-coming stars in this country?
For a set yesterday, it looked as if Casey and Barron could cut it with opponents who dwarfed them for speed of reflex and power. Ivanisevic finished his first service game with an ace as the Croatians dashed into a 3-0 lead. Incredibly, he dropped both his next two serves and the Irish fought back to level.
Were all the things they were saying about Ivanisevic true? Had things really gone this bad? At 30-15 in the next game, Ivanisevic resolutely contested a close line call. The umpire hadn't seen it and had to stand by his line judge. "She's blind like you", quipped Ivanisevic. The Croatians lost the set on a tie-break but the beast in Ivanisevic had been roused.
They took a mere 40 minutes to settle the second and third sets and by the fourth it had become an exhibition. Serving to go 4-1 up, Ivanisevic again queried a call. This time he shrugged it off by serving an ace on his second serve. He followed that with a vicious forehand drive to win the next game.
Clearly contented, the performer began to treat his audience to some choice phrases of celebration. The words were in Croatian but no one needed a translator to tell them that Ivanisevic was feeling quite chuffed with himself.