Tennis - 1999
By Jim Greer
Since 1988, Goran Ivanisevic has come to Wimbledon believing he'll win. But 11 years later, at the age of 27, he finds himself running out of time – and faith.
Goran Ivanisevic is stuck in a Friends-theme song rut. In other words, it hasn't been his day, his week, his month, or even his year, and lately, things have gone from bad to worse. The 6-foot-4-inch Croatian left-hander has suffered through his third loss in a Wimbledon final, a back injury that kept him out of the Australian Open, and lackluster singles play that has recently resulted in early Super 9 losses to the 106th-and 171st-ranked players on the ATP Tour. Murmurs that he has “given up” or “lost his motivation” accompany each successive poor showing, which is all the more frustrating to his many supporters because of his enormous – and as-yet-untapped – potential.
Worse, Ivanisevic doesn't seem all that eager to lay his fans’ fears to rest. While lounging on an overstuffed couch in the lobby of the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort in Indian Wells, Calif., his eyes fixed on an indeterminate spot on the rear wall, Ivanisevic all but confirms the accusations.
“You come to this stage of the game where you don't feel like playing every day,” he says. “Eleven years on the tour, it's not easy, you know. So many young guys, everybody pumped. You need to motivate yourself every day. It's not easy.”
He's got a point. Given his posh surroundings, it's hard enough to motivate himself to get off the couch, much less summon the reserves of mental and physical energy that are necessary to maintain a competitive edge on an increasingly strong men's tour. There's always a younger, hungrier player coming around the corner, and whatever killer instinct Ivanisevic may once have possessed has been blunted by the dulling comforts of fortune and fame.
"I'm happy when I play, but I don't care so much if I lose or win," he says, picking at a thread on his black tennis shorts with his preternaturally long fingers. “Tennis is still No. 1 thing to me. When I'm playing good, I'm happy. When I'm not playing good, I'm just eating myself inside. But there's some other things which I'm interested in. I'm still going to play a couple of years tennis. I'm still enjoying to win, I'm still enjoying to hit ace, all these things.”
Not exactly a resounding battle cry. Then again, it's never a good idea to take everything the laconic Ivanisevic mutters at face value. His moods are heavily influenced by his on-court play, and after a bad showing (he lost to Xavier Malisse at the Newsweek Champion's Cup the previous day), such a pronouncement often takes on a particularly cheerless tone (see his suicidal 1998 Wimbledon post-final press conference).
But there's no denying that his game is presently going through an extended bear market, with occasional rallies that provide exasperating glimpses of the level at which he's capable of playing. The abiding question: Does Ivanisevic have the will to pull himself out of his slump?
Bob Brett, Ivanisevic's good friend and former coach, isn't quite sure. “It's going to take something to snap him out of it,” Brett says. “Players go through a stage where their whole life is changing. Pretty much when you're 20, 2 1, the world's at your feet. Then, as you get older, the issues that come up are more outside the court; the experiences outside the court leave a little bit of scar tissue. It can be relationships, it can be your relationship with your tennis.
"It's important to still have that real enthusiasm, that aggressiveness, that arrogance that a 20-year-old has, but Goran's going to be 28 this year, so there are a few more experiences he's had that tend to close him a little more. It's very difficult to push the weaknesses away.”
GORAN IS ACTUALLY VERY SHY," SAYS JUDY Mayer, tennis enthusiast and longtime friend of Ivanisevic's who may rate as his No. I fan. Mayer's analysis seems far-fetched at first, given Ivanisevic's celebrated on-court outbursts and antics, but she may in fact be onto something. “He tries to cover it up with being funny and cute, especially on the court,” she says. “When he wasn't playing well, he used to get angry and throw racquets and all this stuff. Now he's kind of changed. He's gotten into being more funny. I think he realized he was getting a bad reputation-and he really isn't that kind of person-of being wacky, crazy, not nice, on the court. So he took to kind of doing a comedy routine instead. And now people think he's even wackier than before. I think he just thought, ‘If I'm funny, maybe they'll like me better.’”
It's an act that – judging from the pair of handcuffs he received as a birthday present from one admirer (Ivanisevic declined to name her) during last year's U.S. Open – plays well with his women followers. It doesn't hurt, either, that Ivanisevic has cultivated a shaggy-haired, goateed look that's eerily reminiscent of a former singer from a Seattle grunge band or the customary depiction of Jesus Christ, depending on your taste. (“But I don't play like Jesus, that's for sure,” Ivanisevic is quick to say.)
Nor does the fact that he is, at heart, a quietly compassionate person. Ivanisevic is the 1999 Chairman for ATP Tour Charities and has pledged to contribute $50 for every ace he hits this year to the Help Children in Need foundation, which he established. Seeing as how his ace count for 1998 was more than 1,000, enough to lead the tour for the fourth time in five years – this isn't exactly chump change.As for having children of his own, Ivanisevic professes to love the idea in the abstract, but “is necessary first to have wife.” Constant touring contributed to last year's breakup with Croatian beauty Daniela Mihalic. While he grudgingly admits that he's now seeing another, unnamed, model, he adds: “It's not easy. She's traveling, I am traveling, so we don't see each other a lot.”
Ivanisevic's reticence with regard to his private life extends to his past as well: Attempts to plumb his family history meet with a stony wall of Balkan reserve. “When I was seven, my father took me to the tennis and I started to like it, and slowly, slowly, I work and become better and better, and here I am now,” he says, an impish gleam in his dark eyes.
He'll allude to “other things” happening in his life that “bother” him, but his reluctance to discuss or even identify these things is palpable. Like Mayer says, he's a shy guy.
AT A TIME WHEN THE MEN'S TOUR IS IN THE throes of a severe personality drought, Ivanisevic's antics offer a welcome respite from the machine-like performance of tenbots (tennis + robot) such as Sampras, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Tim Henman, et al. Last year, moments after losing to Karol Kucera in the final of the Pilot Pen International at New Haven, Conn., Ivanisevic expressed his “shyness” by climbing into the umpire's chair and mocking the presumed myopia of Steve Ullrich and his lines crew. "It is very nice to sit, you know," he said. "That is why he makes so many mistakes."
At Indian Wells, his first-round victory over Alberto Berasategui featured the standard complement of protested line calls and Croatian cusses. Ivanisevic was issued a point violation for his bad behavior, but he reined in his temper long enough to pull out a tough three-setter. During his loss to Malisse, on the other hand, he was more subdued. Ivanisevic assumed a hangdog expression the moment the P.A. announcer mangled the pronunciation of his name (you'd think after 11 years on tour, people would have figured out that it's ee-va-NEE-seh-vich), and he made nary a peep of protest through the double faults, mishits, and muffed opportunities that followed. The obvious conclusion: lose temper win; stay calm = lose.
“Yeah, I mean, losing [my temper] takes all the negative things outside me, you know,” he says. “[Against Malisse] I was too flat, actually. Sometimes when I'm too flat on the court and my game is too flat, then I just need one point to snap, and then I will play better.”
But unlike John McEnroe, who has admitted that his outbursts were part gamesmanship to affect the flow of a match, Ivanisevic's misbehavior isn't so premeditated. “No, it's just coming from inside,” he says. “A lot of guys, they try to create it, but I think someone like McEnroe was natural, you know. A lot of people hate him, but a lot of people loved him. I loved him, because he was just great, he was a fighter.
“My problem, sometimes, is I lose my mind too much, and then from the highway I go to the back roads, and then I have to come back. Especially when I play good players. But it's natural for me. I behave like I behave. I don't think.”
When it's suggested that a lengthy break might be just what he needs to regain his focus and concentration, Ivanisevic balks. “Actually the break, I don't take so much,” he says. “I only break when I'm injured. I hurt my back in Australia, I took four weeks because I was injured. That's my break.
“I'm a guy who likes to play, who likes to be on the tour. Sometimes I feel like I should take more break. Maybe other people, they say, ‘Oh, Goran, why you do this?’ But listen, I am 11 years on the tour, I am 27 years old, so I can make my decision and . . .” He pauses, changing direction in mid-thought. “I have made a lot of bad decisions. Now it's time, I think, to make some good decisions.”
WE HAVE, OF COURSE, BEEN THROUGH Ivanisevic's peaks and valleys and sweeping mood swings before. The first half of 1998, much like the first four months of 1999, was marked by a series of early-round losses, frustratingly inconsistent play, and defeatist interviews. Then came, as it tends to do, Wimbledon, and a third heartbreakingly insufficient performance in the final, this one perhaps even more than the previous two because the stars seemed so perfectly aligned: The crowd, like never before, was pulling mightily for him; Croatia was within spitting distance of the World Cup soccer title; Jana Novotna, another frustrated would-be Wimbledon titlist, had broken through in her third final appearance a day earlier; and Ivanisevic was playing as well as he had in years-better than the last time he met Sampras in the final, in '94, when he folded in the third set after losing the first two in tiebreakers. “Everything was there last year for me to win, and I was so surprised,” he says. “I was so sure I was going to win, and it was just one, two points, and everything goes. But hopefully this year will be better, you know. Three times holding this [runner-up] plate, it's no fun.”
No fun for him, maybe, but tremendous fun for others to watch. Ivanisevic always seems to pick up his game in response to the pressures of playing in tennis' grandest event.
“Just the atmosphere, I like it there, a lot of pressure,” he explains, or tries to explain. “All the questions they ask me there, always the same: 'Is this the year? Is this the year?' And I always have the same answer: 'Yeah, maybe, I don't know, who knows?' And the rain and the delays, you have to deal with that, but it just ... I like it.”
His success at the All England Club (he's 37-11 lifetime) can't be ascribed entirely to the Goran-friendly surface. Sure, his cannon-armed serves skid like left-handed missiles off the slick grass, and there's a concomitant rise in his aces and service winners, but Ivanisevic bristles at the idea that he's a one-surface, single-weapon wonder.
“They say, ‘He's only serving,’” Ivanisevic says, “but I won tournaments on clay, I won tournaments on hard courts, on grass, indoors. And you cannot win tournaments on clay, facing the best claycourt players, with only a serve.”
But you can't beat even the 171st-ranked player in the world serving more double faults than aces, which is exactly what Ivanisevic did against Malisse in Indian Wells.
Not surprisingly, the biggest rap against Ivanisevic has been his inconsistency, which is predominantly a mental disorder. No one doubts his natural talent, least of all Ivanisevic himself.
“I'm a guy who, when I don't play, I don't need too much to put my game together,” he says. “I don't need to work 10 hours to put my game ... I'm more talented, and I can do that easier, and I have a big serve. So it's just with my mind, and I just have to put these things together.”
Hubris-shaded statements like these, delivered deadpan, belie the fact that Ivanisevic is, in fact, one of the hardestworking players on the tour.
“People can't believe he would work as hard as he does, and then go and tank a match,” says Brett. “I think that results from a certain amount of insecurity, there's no question about that. On the other hand, there's a certain amount of arrogance.” Brett laughs. “He's a contradiction in many ways.”
Ivanisevic's hit-or-miss play is an outgrowth of his all-or-nothing approach to the game. Viewed in this manner, he's remarkably consistent: In any given situation, even one that calls – begs – for a conservative approach, he'll go for the riskiest shot, the outright winner, the improbable placement, or the ace, when almost any other player would settle for merely getting the ball back in play. How many times have you watched him go for an ace (which he pronounces az in his thick accent) on a crucial second serve, only to come up long by a yard or two? Then again, how many times have you seen him do the same thing and succeed? High-risk tennis produces spotty results, but when played by a supernal talent such as Ivanisevic, it does get results. He entered 1999 with 21 pro titles and six year-end Top 10 finishes.
But Ivanisevic has also come to be branded as a perennial Wimbledon bridesmaid, to such an extent that "the most talented player never to win a major" moniker ought to be tattooed on his left shoulder. And he knows it.
“If I get to the final again, I will be very nervous, with ‘three-time finalist’ hanging in [my] mind,” he says. “But I don't think God will let me hold this plate again for fourth time. He will say, ‘Enough, now it's time for you to hold the trophy. And whatever you do, you will hold the trophy.’”
Brett believes Ivanisevic's All England quest is being complicated by exceedingly high expectations – his own, the public's, and the media's – and past failures. “It's impossible to ignore it, getting to that last step and not being able to conquer,” he says. “How many times can you get close and then get knocked out? There is, I've always believed, something missing. But that's not a public discussion.”
Brett's allusion to there being “something missing” was, more than likely, a factor in the severance of their working relationship three years ago. Ivanisevic replaced Brett, who had guided Boris Becker to a No. 1 ranking, with hometown friend Vedran Martic, whose main role seems more to cheer up Ivanisevic on tour than to be a tennis taskmaster. It's no coincidence that since changing coaches, signifying a downscaling of his tour ambitions, Ivanisevic is no longer a Top 10 player (he was ranked No. 17 as of May 3).
Indeed, he has the air of a man less focused on conquering the future than on consolidating the past. It's almost as if he believes his fortune has already been cast, and that the outcome-whether it be of a particular match, a tournament, or the way his career is viewed-is in destiny's hands, not his own.
“Goran totally believes that he's just an unlucky person,” says Judy Mayer. “That is one of the first things he ever told me: ‘I was born unlucky.’ He believes bad things happen to him.
“I thought he would outgrow that, but I don't think he ever has. I've seen him in matches where he's got a match point, and they call a foot fault. And he'll totally self-destruct and lose the match. Because he really believes \things like that are a sign, that it was meant for him not to win.”
That such an attitude is even possible from a player who has won nearly $18 million in prize money, and who was once ranked No. 2 in the world, is just one of the many inscrutable facts of his character. More so than almost any elite player, Ivanisevic seems to be ruled by his heart rather than his mind. What's more, he's aware of it – and helpless to change it.
“I'm too negative on myself, you know? I'm looking at everything so black, and then just putting myself down,” he says. “Nobody knows what will happen in my match. From great match can be horror. Even I don't know what will happen out there.“I think it's interesting, you have three movies in one match: horror, comedy, drama. It's fun. I enjoy it. I am like that. I don't like to change. And if I could choose, I would be the same again. just me, and I like who I am.”
As it happens, his legion of fans feel the same way.