The Telegraph - 2001
By Richard Evans, in Zagreb.
Click on the pictures to see them in full.
Swapping Centre Court for the parade ground, Goran Ivanisevic gave his allegiance to the Croatian army yesterday.
It was press-ups at 7am for the Wimbledon champion, currently the most public private soldier in the world, on the day of the big parade at Borongai Barracks.
And then it was a question of survival.
Its not easy standing still for an hour while temperatures struggle to get past minus 10C.
But somehow the 700 young men - and one rather older national hero - managed it on a crystal-clear morning as they waited to march on to the parade ground for a ceremony, watched by hundreds of relatives, that celebrates the first three weeks of basic training, and offers allegiance to the Croatian flag.
'The top half was not bad, but lower down, my feet, they were ice.' said Goran Ivanisevic after he had dealt with the posse of local press who had swarmed around his platoon, making sure that everybody knew there was somebody special trying to merge into the anonymous mass of khaki.
Anonymity, when you are the most popular athlete in the 10-year history of your fledgling nation is, of course, impossible. Ivanisevic accepts that, but he has managed, against considerable odds, to behave like all the other conscripts in his Sportsman's Division, which is comprised purely of athletes considered of national calibre.
It will come as no surprise to those who know him that Ivanisevic did not have to do this. He signed up, immediately after the US Open in September on his 30th birthday - the very last day on which he was eligible to enter the Croatian army.
With a chronic shoulder and his lofty connections he could, of course, have skipped the whole thing. 'But it was something I wanted to do,' he said, laughing at the fact there is now a Private Goran to go along with all the other Gorans - the good, crazy and special ones - he spoke about so amusingly at Wimbledon. 'I am proud to be here and I think it was important I show an example. Once you are in the uniform, everybody treats me differently'
Was he a good soldier? I posed the question to one of his commanding officers as we sipped hot black coffee in a VIP room set aside for the top brass.
'He is going to be!' smiled Captain Mario Prix. 'Some things have been difficult, but he has been very willing to learn and we have triedto make sure his life in the army has been as normal as possible.'
Reassembling a rifle with frozen fingers on a cold morning was a much more complicated process for Ivanisevic than firing aces down the centre service line, and it is far from sure that his aim with a Kalashmikov is as accurate as it is with his new Head racket.
'No trying to put that thing together, I was not perfect,' Goran admitted, 'And if you don't do it correctly, you have to do push ups.'
How strange. That's exactly what my sadistic little sergeant-major made me do at Warley Barracks a few decades ago - long before this army existed. Armies have never been known for originality when it comes to discipline, but at least the Croatian armed forced have a unique history, having been forged out of the sudden and dire necessity of a nasty cival war. For the officers who once wore the uniform of the Yugoslav army, watching the red-and-white chequered flag run up the mast as the national anthem plays stirs rare feelings of pride.
It was the vivid memory of this conflict that made Ivanisevic want to serve. He had returned home regularly during the war to meet up with old school friends who were fighting, and he would not have been afraid to volunteer. But everybody told him to get back out on the tennis circuit and win tournaments. 'We need something normal to hang on to, something to make us happy.' they said.
It took him a long time to make them really happy, but when he did finally hail that fourth match point against Patrick Rafter on an unforgettable Monday afternoon at Wimbledon 2001.
'The whole nation was behind him. but now we are happy he is just one of us.'
Although everybody has gone to great pains to ensure he merges with the masses, his unit is, in itself, a bit special.
The Sportsman's Division celebrated its fifth anniversary last week. It was spawned from a group of athletes who turned up at the start of the war and volunteered to fight.
'Then we saw the value of getting talented athletes together and giving them special privileges,' said Colonel Dusan Viro, head of PR at the Ministry of Defence. 'We recognised the big influence our best athletes have on the international image of Croatia but we did not want to let them get out of their duty to serve. Nor did we want to hinder their development. So this unit allows its recruits to peruse their normal training for whichever sport they play and they are given time off to compete internationally'.
So, after a few more attempts at assembling that Kashmikov, Ivanisevic, accompanied by his beautiful fiancee, Tatjana Dragovic, will head off for the Qatar and then Auckland in January in preparation for the Australian Open. It is a year that may end with Ivanisevic as a married man and a retired tennis player.
'Yes, maybe I will get married in the summer,' he said guardedly. 'And, as for my tennis, I don't know. I am just going to play as much as I can and see what happens with the shoulder. I still love to play and, of course, I want to make that appointment at 2pm on the Centre Court on the first Monday. But in the meantime, I am having fun. It is goo, this army thing'.
'He really has enjoyed it,' said Tatjana, who is huddled up in her mother's fur coat, tip-toeing through the snow and ice on the way back to Ivanisevic's father Srdjan's Jeep. 'Being a tennis player is different from playing for a football team. There is not the same camaraderie. But now he is with a group of guys and has made lots of friends and he is having a good time. Even if he does not enjoy the press-ups!'
Tatjana, who modelled for six-years in New York, knows she is envied by every eligible girl in the country but, as someone with a Serbian father and a Croatian mother, knows, too, that there is a downside to this kind of celebrity status. 'I still get hate mail,' she said, 'But there is prejudice everywhere and, travelling like we do, we find the most innocent things can offend people'.
Apparently, when Ivanisevic last played in Qatar, the romantic couple were yelled at in the street because they were holding hands. 'At first we couldn't understand what everybody was complaining about.' said Tatjana, 'This time we will be more careful.'
Not, perhaps, as careful as Private Goran will have to be with that gun. But come Wimbledon, he will have been demobbed, and be getting used again to room service and fresh pillows instead of struggling with an army blanket.
Thanks to Jenny for submitting this article.