Goran Ivanisevic Article

The Sunday Times - July 2001


UNDER COVER of dusk, the boat slips back into port and there are only four people to greet it. But as Goran Ivanisevic emerges from the cabin, wearing a singlet and shorts and a crumpled sun hat, his eyes search the wide expanse of the marina and you can tell he is reliving the moment three days before when almost 200,000 people, about three-quarters of the population of Split, turned out to greet their favourite son. "It was the greatest feeling, unbelievable," said the new Wimbledon men's singles champion, who has hardly had time to draw breath since his thrilling five-set victory over Pat Rafter last week. "This city is so special. I knew they love me, but this was something else. This was incredible. But they are like that. When I play bad, they feel bad but now . . . now you can die because there will be nothing better than this."

But it would be wrong to misconstrue this typically dramatic statement as a signal that Ivanisevic, who put to sea again yesterday for another eight days sailing around the Dalmatian islands with his girlfriend Tatjana Dragovic in his 400,000 Southampton-built Princess-class boat, intends to do much more than just turn his arm over until the Tennis Masters Cup in Sydney, the eight-man ATP finale to the year to which he is now guaranteed entry as a result of having won a Grand Slam title.

Armed with a bucket of pain-killers to deal with the constant ache in his left shoulder, Ivanisevic will head off to the US summer circuit, where he intends to play in Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Long Island before the US Open, with a new spring in his step and a song in his heart.

"Now I can be truly happy," he says. "I think I will play better than ever because the pressure has been lifted. Maybe I will play some tennis I could not play before because I was afraid to miss."

That can only be a worrying thought for his rivals because there was no sign of fear in the Croat's game as he blasted his way to the Wimbledon title.

"It's true, this time I was very calm," he said. "After feeling I did not belong on the Tour for many months last year, everything started to come together and I sensed the attitude towards me in the locker room start to change. 'Goran is back', was the feeling. And I felt it, too. Then I changed rackets at Rosmalen, just a week before Wimbledon.

"Crazy thing to do after all these years but Head had been at me to change and, really, it helped my shoulder because the new frames are not so stiff. Then, after the first round at Wimbledon (he beat Fredrik Jonsson in straight sets) I knew everything was okay. And I got lucky, sure. The rain came at the right time against Tim Henman; everything was good for me and, for the first time at Wimbledon, I felt as if God wanted me to win."

And God was not the only one. The extent to which Srdjan Ivanisevic put his life at risk to support his son at Wimbledon only becomes apparent after a couple of glasses of the white wine that the 59-year-old rarely drinks - despite a 400-year history of wine-making in the family.

We knew, of course, that the grey-haired electronic engineering professor had been warned by his doctors not to travel to London for so stressful an occasion after a near heart attack two years ago.

But no one knew how close Srdjan came to suffering one on two occasions during the Wimbledon fortnight until he turned to his wife, Gorana, and said: "I haven't told you this before and I'm not going to say it again, so listen well." Goran was still at sea and we were sitting by the quayside at the Koralj Restaurant, tucking into shrimp soup and boiled muscles. Srdjan took one last sip of wine.

"It was after the Marat Safin match," he said. "I went back to the house we were renting nearby and lay down to recover from the excitement when I felt this pain in my chest and then in my back, which is a very bad sign. So I put a pill under my tongue, as I had been told, and lay down.

"After a time the pain passed. Then, after the second match point in the final, I feel pain in the chest again. You can imagine what I was going through. So quickly I took another pill and was okay although Niki Pilic, sitting next to me, said afterwards he was sure I was going to die."

The more one delves into one of the most remarkable stories of unlikely sporting triumph most of us have ever heard of, let alone witnessed, the more it becomes clear that Ivanisevic was aided in his quest for sporting immortality by some remarkably selfless family support and a nod or two from those angels he insisted were on his side.

Apart from two days at the Milan Indoors in February, Srdjan had not travelled to watch his son play tennis for 18 months. "But all year, strange as it seems, Goran had been telling me that he had been playing well, despite his results," said his father.

"And I knew this to be true because I know his game so well and I had seen some matches on TV. So when he asked me if I would go, I just said, 'Yes, I come.' I didn't tell him I said yes because I believed in him and knew how special it was for him to play on grass at Wimbledon. But that was how I felt and that was why I went.

"If I was to suffer only one day, okay. If I was to suffer for 15 days, then it would be worth it. As it is, the big memory I have is of him sitting there with the towel over his head, the champion."

Mrs Ivanisevic, a tall, stylish dark-haired woman who shops in Rome and is director of social security, charged with divying up the money for Split's medical services, listens to all this as calmly as she can.

"I wanted only two things," she said. "That Srdjan survive and that Goran lose to Tim Henman if he was not going to win the title. I could not have taken another defeat in the final." Then, when her husband went inside to supervise the next course of grilled local fish cooked in olive oil, she turned to me and said: "You know, I could not stop him going. He had had quite enough with my problems the previous year. I had five operations for breast cancer."

Add to that her daughter's successful three-year battle against leukaemia, which was the first cause Goran fought for with his tennis racket, and then the brutal civil war, which was the second, and it becomes quite clear just what kind of a minefield the Ivanisevic family needed to weave through to bring such joy to their nation.

"And that is the great thing," said his father when he returned to watch the yachts rocking at anchor as the big Ancona ferry steamed into port. "Goran winning Wimbledon has made the entire nation happy. But everyone is only a hero for a day. Soon, they will be trying to charge him too much for his new house!"

But not yet. The night before, we had strolled down the Riva, the broad avenue bordering the seafront where 1,700 years ago, the Roman emperor Diocletianus had built his palace. He had started out as a Dalmatian footsoldier in Split, from where the Caesars drew most of their Praetorian Guard because the locals were so tall, and ended up as the last of the Caesars, acclaimed by his people.

Neither Srdjan nor his son have attained quite that status but Srjdan is, without doubt, the second most recognisable man in Croatia at the moment and he could not walk 10 yards without someone coming up and offering congratulations.

Gorana had not watched her son's triumph, not even on television, "because I cannot bear it any more. It is too much for me. I had 20 years of taking Goran to his matches or watching him play and that is enough."

But the support is always there because both parents put enormous store in the strength of the family. "We live together, we suffer together and we celebrate together," she says.

It is a philosophy that enables her to laugh when she notices a smudge of lipstick on the upper sleeve of her husband's yellow shirt. "It was just a greetings kiss," Srdjan teases.

The kissing had started a long time ago for this devoted couple whose families owned large tracts of land before Tito's communist regime engulfed Yugoslavia after the second world war. Both husband and wife were heading for as prosperous a life as was allowed under the communists long before their second child was born 29 years ago.

Srdjan was fanatical about electronics and, after studying for two years at New York State University on Long Island, wrote a book called Pulse & Digital Technique, which is still used as a primer in Croatian universities.

Taking the pulse of his hyperactive young son, on and off the court, soon convinced Srdjan that Goran possessed exceptional ability. "I knew the game," he said. "I had played at our local club with Pilic and Zeljko Franulovic, although I never wanted to be a professional player myself.

"But then I saw how quick and co-ordinated Goran was and how he played shots so easily, by instinct. So he started working with the club professional, Ladislav Kacer, and was soon so good that he played in a match against a 14-year-old when he was just eight. He lost and cried for three days."

Hatred of defeat is always part of a champion's make-up, but Srdjan knew that it was important for his volatile son to get proper guidance once he joined the ATP Tour. "So I approached Bob Brett just when he was finishing with Boris Becker," he said. "And for five years Bob was like a father to Goran, so much more than a coach. He was a teacher and taught him about life."

Coincidentally, Brett is due to arrive in Split later this week to spend a few days with a 17-year-old Croatian called Mario Ancic with whom he has been working for several years.

"He is very good," says Srdjan with a twinkle in his eye. In Split we have many good players."