Interview with Goran Ivanisevic
Interviewer - black
Goran - sage.
In a Q&A conducted in Croatian, Goran speaks about his hot temper, his serving strategies and helping children in his war-torn homeland.
Interview conducted and translated by Josip Navakovic. Josip Navakovic teaches writing at the University of Cincinnati and is the author of Yolk and fiction Writer's Workshop.
When I met with Goran Ivanisevic in the lobby of the Hotel Inter-Continental in Paris, he looked as friendly and as uncomplicated as a lanky college kid on spring break. Although I had never met him, I had the sensation of seeing a friend, perhaps because we are both Croatians coming together in another part of the world; I had to restrain myself from tapping him on the shoulder.
We sat in heavy leather armchairs in this Versaillesque palace-turned into a hotel- and Ivanisevic surprised me with his unpretentiousness.
He spoke in a Dalmatian dialect which to us from the continental parts of Croatia, sounds as quaint as a Sotherner drawl does in the States. The rest of Croatia admires Dalmatia, located along the coast of the Adriatic Sea, for its leisurely pace and good humor. In this native Croatian language he seemed comfortable, at home, unlike in English, where he sometimes searches for words and says whatever ready-made phrase he can rememember, all in the present tense- which misrepresents him as a noble savage of sorts.
As we talked there was often a bit of a smile and a shine in his eyes-he seemed to be tempted to be playful, but he kept with the talk at hand, the interview, quite professionally. Several years ago he used to speak undiplomatically, a la Charles Barkley. For example, he said Ivan Lendl was a boring player. Now when I ask him about Lendl, he said Lendl was a highly admirable champion. Although he has worn a headband stitched with the flag of Croatia, he did not want to discuss politics. When I asked him whether he would consider playing against Serbia once the relations improved, he winced and said he did not want to answer such questions. I can understand why -no matter what he answered he could alienate quite a few people.
In Croatia, he is a national hero. He won the first Olympic medal (bronze in 1992) for Croatia. Many kids have his posters on their walls. On the other hand, in continental Croatia, perhaps because of regional rivalries, support for him is not unanimous. When I watched the Ivanisevic -Stefan Edberg match from the IBM/ATP Tour World Championship in Frankfurt last year on a TV in a Zagreb bar, most of the bar rooted for Edberg.
In Croaita, as in the US, he suffers the reputation of being too impulsive and erratic. Talking to him, you'd never guess that he was impulsive- you'd see the quiet determination in his manner. His father said that Goran, as a typical Mediterraniean man, is a late bloomer- that this has something to do with the minerals in the Mediterranean fish and water. I don't know about the minerals, but as he matures and learns to balance the varying sides of his personality, perhaps his best years are still ahead of him.
Why did you become a tennis player rather than a basketball player? Because of your hometown, Split, and because of your tall build, it's hard not to think of basketball.
As a kid I loved basketball and wanted to become a basketball player, but my father taught me how to play tennis, made me work at it, and I fell in love with it. But I still love basketball, too.
You play it for fun?
Sure. Whenever I visit Split, I play it with my friends
Who taught you most in tennis? Your father?
Yes, Father taught me most. My first coach, Vladislav Kacar, and Nikola Pilic helped us along. Then Balazs Taroczy coached me when I bacame a pro, but after a while we split up, and Bob Brett come along. He's maybe the most important person in my development. He especially helped me mentally.
Do you think we are beginning to see a new style of coaching? The game has changed so perhaps old coaches can't coach as well as the younger ones. For example, Brad Gilbert is doing a superb job with Andre Agassi.
I don't know. Gilbert is a very clever and experienced player- he knows how the players think. That's the main thing, that your coach knows how the players think. It does not matter how old the coach is, but how well he understands the strategy. Bob is fantastic. He's competed for years, he understands the game, and he has helped me to think better on the court myself. The guy knows who I am. That's crucial. We spend a lot of time together, as friends, so he really understands me.
What players did you like most when you were a kid?
John McEnroe. Partly because he was a left-hander partly because he played with the most imagination. And I liked his temper, it's similar to mine. Later I met him, and he's a calm guy, different from what you see on the court.
What's the fastest serve you've ever had? Have you served faster that 136 m.p.h. in training?
I don't measure my speed in training, so 136 m.p.h. at Wimbledon is my fastest serve on record.
What's the secret of power and speed in serving?
Whenever I try to hit hard, I serve weak. When I don't worry about speed, but about the serve quality, then I serve faster. Anyway, for a fast serve you need to be relaxed- your hand needs to be loose, you must not force anything. And the speed also depends on the gun position. If the gun catches your serve at an angle, it appears slower than it is. Sometimes I feel I've hit a fast one, and it's only 110 m.p.h. Other times the serve doesn't feel so fast, and it turns out to be 130 m.p.h. The angle has a lot to do with it.
Do you actually choose a spot on the line before the serve?
No, I don't focus on a specific spot, but I often want to hit near the line, on one side or on the other. People think it's easy for me- that I"ll hit an ace again, right on the dot. But I can't always blatantly focus on a spot. Chang and Agassi are getting better and better a anticipating these fast serves, so I have to be clearheaded. I'm not serving just for myself. I have to see what they are doing, be ready to change the focus.
Why do you ocassionally have strings of unforced errors?
It happens sometimes when I want to press and speed up the game. If I lose concentration, I may not snap out of the pressing mode fast enough, so I make several unforced erros in a row.
What does it do for your concenration when you start quareling with linesmen?
Sometimes I need to let the steam of, and I can't always shout at the empire, so I resort to the linesmen for this. I do think that they make errors; the human eye is slow, how else would we enjoy movies if it were not for the inertia of the eye. They have a general impression about where the ball hit- it's a hard job because it's easy to be wrong. But once they make a decision, and they have to decide right away, they can't change it. I can protest for 10 days, and they won't change anything. So I know that my protests won't affect the decision, but it's good to let my frustation out.
McEnroe commented during the Wimbledon final of 1994 that you were maybe even too well-behaved, that it might have been good to throw a racquet and shout to feel better.
There's truth to that. It's worked for him. He talks with the umpire, throws the racquet, shouts and gets rid of some tension. He restores him impulse from agression that way and then he can go back to the game stronger, more agessive, and it can really snap him out of a slide. It works like that for me sometimes, too.
You had the second best percentage in the world in 1994 in saving break points against you. How do you prepare for the key serves?
Under such pressure, I play best, aggressively. On the fast surface, I strive for an ace. I focus on the side I want to hit and usually I make it. It's hard to place the first serve, but with the break puessure somehow it's easier to play well, to attack.
Under break pressure, you frequently serve your second serve like the first?
True. That's risky and not very smart. The chances are 50/50. If the ball is in, it doesn't mean that the other player won't return it. If it's half an inch out, you outright lose the point. I guess I do it because I feel aggressive under pressure. Now and then it's good to take a risk, not to lose the aggressive impulse.
What aspect of the game are you working on?
I no longer need to work on one major aspect of the game, I just need to keep perfecting all of them. Now I have everything I need to win a Grand Slam, and I hope I'll do it.
Are you still friends with the Serb player Slobodan Zivojinovic, or did you break off the friendship, the way pro basketball players Drazen Peorvic and Vlade Divac did theirs?
Neither him nor I caused this war. There's no reason for us not to get along.
Did you learn to serve from him?
I watched him serve; he had one of the best serves in the world, but I did not copy it. My father taught me how to serve.
Regarding Monica Seles, Lendl, Navratilova and other players from Central Europe-they all chose to live in the States. You are not tempted?
No, I wouldn't like to live so far away from my native town, Split. But I like to visit the states. It's a fascinating country. There's always so much going on.
What do you think of the American way of life?
There's not just on American way, is there? It depends on where you live. Florida is slow-paced, relaxed, peaceful- there's no rat race there, I think, because there are so many retired people around who set the pace. It's wonderful there with the warm cimate, beaches, peace. New York is hectic. I could not live like that for long, though I enjoy visiting the town.
It's an amazing place and I hope to explore to more. Overall, I think Americans know how to live pretty well, comfortably. I could live there, sure. But I don't need to.
Where do you like to play most?
In Germany, Austria, Italy...I love Germany especially. Germans understand tennis, and I feel great playing there.
Why do you live in Monte Carlo, aside from the tax break you get there?
The town's similar to Split- similar climate. But travel connections from there are better.
Have you been to the Formula races?
No, though I'd like to. I always have to play when the race is taking place.
You like to drive fast?
Yes, but only when I'm alone. When I'm responsible for someone else's life, I drive carefully. But you never know with driving- it's never quite safe, whether you drive quickly or slowly.
Do you have many friends among tennis players?
No, just a couple. We all know each other, chat with each other now and then, but I can't say that my best friends are tennis players.
Does your sucess in tennis disturb your old friendships?
No, nothing can damage a real friendship. I keep up my old friendships and don't look for new ones.
Do your friends visit you in Monte Carlo?
Sure, several times a year, and some of them visit during my tournaments. It's good for me- we go out, see a movie, tease each other, joke. I find that very relaxing.
You know Croatian basketball plyers have had success in the U.S. The late Drazen Petrovic was a friend of yours? Toni Kukoc?
Petrovic was a real friend, a wonderful man. His death (in an auto accident in 1993) really shook me up. Kukoc, I got to know him in the Olympic games. We come from the same town, but we haven't communicated that much. Now he's terribly busy in the NBA, where I think he'll make it. Petrovic did, and too bad that just when he found his place there, he died. I still can't understand that he's no longer alive, but that's fate.
Do you like to read books, watch movies, listen to music?
I can't say that I have read many books in my life, but I listen to music a lot and go to the movies.
What movies do you like best?
It depends on my mood what I want to see. I often watch action movies with Schwarzenegger, for example. Bruce Willis too, is one of my favorite actors. "Schindler's List" is a great movie, though it's heavy, serious; for me it was traumatic to watch it because if reminded me so much of what went on in Croatia.
What do you think about the situation in Croatia?
I don't like to talk about it very much. Now it's better than it used to be, and I hope one day the country will be completely peaceful, that people will live without fear and enjoy their lives. But nothing solid is being done to settle the situation. It grieves me to watch so much misery there- so many poor people and children living in total poverty.
Actually, you have been helping children in Croatia?
Yes. I have visited a Croatian hospital where I saw many children, wounded, maimed, orphaned. That hit me hard. So we opened a foundation for children. I help kids and I always will.
Do people ask you for money? They write to you?
Yes, they do, but I can't help like that- one by one. It's better for me to work through a foundation where I can see that the money helps children. Children have done no harm to anybody, and they suffer the most, that I can't accept. They need the most help.
Is it hard to guard your privacy?
Yes, especially with journalists. They want to know everything. I understand that it's their job.
You don't like journalists that much?
I don't mind the sports journals-they are fine. But I do dislike the tabloids, where the journalists gossip. You have to be careful what you tell them because they exaggerate it, turn it around, and try to make you a center of a scandal that they make up. So you have to be cautious with them.
How do you explain it, that you are ranked No. 5 or higher for most of the last four years, yet there are few articles about you in the States?
In Europe there are plenty. If I played better in the States, Americans would be interested.
American journalists draw a simple portrait of you- big serve and unpredictability. Your reactions?
When journalists get an idea, they stick to it: they read each other and repeat the same things over and over. Sure, my serve is good, in all the court positions, front and back, backhand and forehand. It gives me a headache to read what these guys write.
Now it's too early to ask you this, but what do you imagine you will be doing once you are done competing in tennis? Will you become a coach?
Maybe. But more likely I'll open a tennis school in Split. I'd like to pass my experience on to children. I don't want to keep my experience to myself. Since I love kids, I want to teach them most.
Now that you are relatively rich, are you tempted to quit tennis and simply enjoy yourself, sail around the world? What keeps you motivated?
Tennis is my life. That means I'm not going to leave tennis for at least six more years. I love the game, I really do.