By John Feinstein
He has talent. He has charisma. So why does he trounce Boris Becker one day and tank the next? Only Goran Ivanisevic knows for sure. Or does he?
It is the first Saturday of the US Open, the kind of day when tennis intrigue is everywhere. And nowhere is the suspense level higher than out on court 16, where Goran Ivanisevic is duking it out with Darren Cahill, the veteran Australian.
Ivanisevic had been up two sets. He now lead two sets to one and the fourth set is a tiebreaker. Sitting on a bar stool less than 100 yards away from the court squirms Cino Marchese, Ivanisevic’s agent. He is a two-minute walk from the court, but he doesn’t dare go near it. “ Goran gets too nervous when I watch”, says Marchese, his rich Italian accent filling the air. “ Last year I watched him play a match in Barcelona and he was terrible. I told him afterwards that the next match I watched him play would be the Wimbledon final”.
Marchese wasn’t off by much. In July, Ivanisevic was up a set and a break in his semi-final showdown against Boris Becker. Somehow, Becker escaped on that day and now, as Marchese smokes furiously, Ivanisevic finds himself in the kind of situation against Cahill that the top players usually find a way out of…somehow.
Only Ivanisevic doesn’t. With Marchese screaming Italian epithets at the TV set, his prized client drops the tie-breaker and then, by his own admission, simply lets the fifth set go by without a fight, losing it 6-0. “ This is why I can’t watch”, Marchese explains. “The kid is still so young. So good, but so very young”.
Cahill is less sympathetic. “Pretty poor effort on his part”, the Aussie says. Ivanisevic doesn’t argue. “It was stupid”, he admits later. “ I never should have lost that match. But after I lost the fourth, I just tanked in the fifth.”
Reporters, amazed at Ivanisevic’s bluntness, want to make sure he isn’t misusing an English word. “ Goran”, someone asks, “ are you sure you know what tanking is?”
Ivanisevic shrugs. “Sure”, he answers. “ It means you give up.”
That one afternoon at Flushing Meadow characterises the paradoxical Ivanisevic. He is as naturally talented as any player in the world. Back then, still a week shy of his nineteenth birthday, Goran had already reached the quarterfinals, or better, of the other three Grand Slam tournaments. On three different surfaces no less.
At 6 feet 5 inches (at least) and 165 pounds, Ivanisevic has a huge serve, good groundstrokes and an ever improving net game. And once Marchese finishes renegotiating his contracts and setting his appearance fees for 1991, the left-hander from Split, Yugoslavia, will be a very wealthy young man.
And yet, one set away from a third Grand Slam meeting with Becker, Ivanisevic folded. He quit, gave up, died. Not that it came as a shock. Among his fellow pros, Ivanisevic has quite a reputation as a tanker. “ Every time I’ve played him, once I won the first set, I knew I had the match”, says American Jim Courier. “ You can see it in his eyes on the first point of the second set. In Monte Carlo, after the first set, he served and volleyed the first two points of the second – on clay.
In Australia, this past January, Ivanisevic lost two tough sets to David Wheaton, 7-5, 7-5, then lost the third, 6-0. At Wimbledon, after dropping a fourth set tie-breaker to Kevin Curren before coming back to win in five, he admitted, “ before, I probably would have tanked the fifth. Now, I hang in there”.
Not against Cahill. Still, tennis is a sport that forgives the talented, so Ivanisevic will be forgiven. “ The Cahill thing won’t hurt him a bit”, says another agent, referring to the teenager’s contracts. “He may tank sometimes, but he may also win Wimbledon three, or four times. He’s the kind of risk people line up to take.”
What’s more, there’s every reason to believe Ivanisevic will outgrow these lapses in judgement. He is an extremely good-natured kid who, as he showed at the Open, is disarmingly honest about himself. He shocked the good ‘ol boys at the All England Club by stating that he couldn’t lose on a day when he was on and that he thought Ivan Lendl was boring. If he thinks it, he says it. In a world filled with contrived, ‘image is everything’, acts, Ivanisevic is a breath of fresh air.
“ He’s great for tennis”, proclaims Becker. “ The game needs more guys like him. His talents is unbelievable and he’s fun to watch.” Becker grins. “ Not always fun to play though.”
Becker speaks from experience. In May, Ivanisevic blew him away in the first round of the French Open and reached the quarterfinals before losing to Austria’s Thomas Muster. At Wimbledon, he broke Becker in the first game of the match, won the first set and served for the second, before Becker put on a display of cerebral tennis seen far too infrequently from him in 1990.
“ He didn’t have any idea how nervous he was supposed to be”, Becker says. “ He comes out against the defending champion in his first (Grand Slam) semi-final and hits four winners to break in the first game. I looked across at him and thought, ‘ now I know how those guys felt when they played me in 1985’.”
Such is the talent that Ivanisevic possesses. Marchese recalls seeing Goran play at a junior tournament in Milan, Italy, when he was 13, skinny and wild, but even then, inescapably capable of greatness. After signing him to IMG, Marchese matches Ivanisevic with coach Nikki Pilic.
“It made sense”, Marchese reflects. “ Nikki is from Split, the same as Goran. He could understand him, teach him. And I knew Goran would look up to him.”
It was a perfect match. In theory. There was just one problem: Pilic was also captain of the German Davis Cup team and he had to divide his time between Cup business and Ivanisevic. If anyone has ever needed full-time attention, it is Ivanisevic, who was thrown out of the European Junior Championships in 1985 after throwing an on-court tantrum.
But alongside the immaturity have been the flashes of extraordinary ability. At the 1989 Australian Open, Ivanisevic, four months past his seventeenth birthday, blasted his way to the quarters and made the tennis world take note. Ion Tiriac, never one to pass on a potential phenomenon, was on hand for so many of Ivanisevic’s matches that Marchese worried that his friend and rival might try to steal his client away.
By the Summer, Marchese was searching for a full-time coach and he eventually settled on Balazs Taroczy, a smart, worldly Hungarian who had most of his pro success playing doubles. It hasn’t been easy, but the 36-year old Taroczy seems to have Ivanisevic headed in the right direction.
“ I’m too wild; I know that”, Ivanisevic says. “ Balazs and Cino are trying to get me to be calmer, to learn from my mistakes.” He smiles. “ I know I make lots of mistakes. Unbelievable ones. But I can also play unbelievable when I do what I’m supposed to”.
Unbelievable, appropriately enough, is Ivanisevic’s favourite English word. Fact is, he never does anything ordinary. His love of a good party and a good time is unbelievable. So is his serve and his strength, surprising in someone so thin. And, most of all, the improvement he has made this year, Cahill notwithstanding, has been, well, unbelievable.
Going into the French there were whispers that Ivanisevic might be one of those great talents who never achieves greatness. His ranking, which had been as high as 34 during 1989, was down to 51.
But all that changed against Becker in Paris where Ivanisevic was – what else – unbelievable. “ He played out of his mind”, was all Becker could utter. Said Ivanisevic after his 5-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 stunner, “ It’s time I begin to be a good player.”
He has, following up a sparkling Wimbledon, with excellent results on both clay (winner at Kitzbuhl, finalist at Bordeaux) and hard courts (finalist at the Norstar bank Hamlet Challenge in New York and the Swiss Indoors, where he squandered a two sets to love and 5-2 lead against John McEnroe in the championship match) throughout the Summer and into the fall. Yet these successes are what concern his agent most.
“This is why we have to stay on him, so he doesn’t get a big head”, Marchese warns. “ This kid is so special to me, he’s like my son (Marchese has about 50 such sons), but he drives me crazy, too. He’s so good and so bad – all in the same match.”
One week after the Open, Ivanisevic moved into the top 10 – at 10 – for the first time and is making a strong run at the eight man ATP finals. If not for the Pete Sampras miracle of Flushing Meadows, Ivanisevic would have run away with ATP Most Improved Player of the Year honours. As it is, he will be a threat at all four Grand Slams in 1991. If….
“…. I keep growing up”, he says, critiquing both his game and his sense of right and wrong. “ I know sometimes I’m not too smart, but I’m young. I have to learn.”
Thanks to Jenny for submitting this article.