Master of the waiting game
12 June 2005
By David Law
After 14 years of trying, three failed finals, and years of increasingly outlandish, superstitious rituals in the hope of somehow getting over the finish line, his dream came true.
Nowadays he amuses himself on the Delta Tour of Champions, the stress-free senior tennis circuit, with the likes of John McEnroe, against whom he plays in an exhibition match at the Stella Artois tournament today.
He took a moment to ponder what would have happened to him if he had failed to beat Pat Rafter in that memorable Monday final in 2001.
"Probably I would have committed suicide," he says, after a while.
Ivanisevic talks with a familiar twinkle in his eye - he always enjoyed shocking the British media. Alarmingly, it seems he is only half-joking.
"It would have been OK if I had not had another chance to win it," he says. "But if I had lost in the final again it would have destroyed me.
"I would probably have jumped off a bridge, or gone to live at the North Pole or something - anything just to disappear. Probably I would have killed myself because it would have destroyed everything. But now I am a happy man."
He also had his 'perfect ending', returning to Wimbledon to defend his title last year after missing out on two previous occasions because of an injured shoulder.
He won a couple of matches, lost on the Centre Court to another former champion - Lleyton Hewitt - and left the stage to a standing ovation, wearing the shirt of his beloved Croatian football team. Perfect.
Will Tim Henman ever experience such utopia?
Ivanisevic was, after all, the man who denied Henman his best chance yet of winning Wimbledon (Henman led by two sets to one overnight in the 2001 semi-final when the match was halted because of rain), but he is also the best proof out there that it could yet happen for the Briton.
The Croat believes Henman can still do it.
"With his game, there is always hope. He should always believe that he is going to win Wimbledon," says Ivanisevic.
"He deserves to win it, he has a good game to win it, and he was very close against me. He was dominating me and then the rain came. It saved me. If it hadn't come I probably would have lost that match, but then after the rain, something changed. He wasn't the same player.
"Maybe he put too much pressure on himself, maybe he thought I was gone, but when we came out the next day I knew that I was going to win the match because he wasn't the same Tim Henman."
Ivanisevic agrees that it will not get any easier for Henman. Over the years, Pete Sampras stood in the way of both of them. Twice he defeated Henman in the semi-finals (1998 and 1999), twice he beat Ivanisevic in the final; seven times he lifted the winner's trophy. When Sampras retired, it was assumed that life would get easier for Henman and Co. Not so.
Roger Federer, the champion in 2003 and 2004, is now the man to beat. Prior to last month's French Open, the Swiss had lost just two matches since August last year. According to Ivanisevic, not even Sampras compares.
"Pete did not dominate tennis like Federer does at the moment. Pete always struggled in the first, second, third rounds. Even when he won Wimbledon he wasn't winning early matches easily.
"If Federer plays well, there is nobody that can beat him at Wimbledon. Up until the semi-finals of tournaments, he is bored! Last year, in the Wimbledon final against Andy Roddick, he did not play well. Roddick played some of the best tennis I have ever seen and he didn't win. Federer might give you one chance, but if you don't take it, you don't win."
If that is the case, how can Henman or anyone else wrest the title from his grasp?
Ivanisevic refuses to accept that it is impossible. After all, he arrived at the All England Club in 2001 with people telling him to retire having just lost in the first round to the little-known Italian, Cristian Caratti, at the Stella Artois Championships. "They told me that I didn't have a chance any more," says Ivanisevic.
"They told me to stay at home. But I came, and I won. Maybe Tim will get his chance, his lucky star, and win as well."
These days Ivanisevic, whose superstitions included eating at the same restaurant every night for two weeks and watching Teletubbies each morning throughout Wimbledon, has less to worry about.
His biggest challenge is raising his two-year-old daughter, Amber-Maria, and finding a way to get a good night's sleep.
"At night it's like she turns into a little vampire," he says. "She wakes up five or 10 times every night, asking for things, singing, calling. If I only get up five times a night, it's like I've won the lottery."
On reflection, he would probably admit that he won the lottery the moment that Pat Rafter's backhand sagged into the net to finally put an end to 14 years of Wimbledon torment.
The Delta Tour of Champions culminates at the Masters Tennis at the Royal Albert Hall, London, Nov 29-Dec 4. For tickets: tel: 0870 458 3661 or online at www.themasters