Ivanisevic rallies after close shave
1 July 1998
BY SIMON BARNES
The great tragedy of Goran Ivanisevic's life is that he was never painted by Toulouse-Lautrec. His appearance, now more louche than ever, is of a forgotten symbolist poet shortly before last orders at Le Tambourin cafe in Paris in the late 1880s, with his seventeenth glass of absinthe beside him and Vincent already passed out at his feet.
Yesterday, he had a tricky match. As usual, his opponent was that difficult and dodgy player, Goran Ivanisevic. Goran won the first two sets, then Ivanisevic took over and lost the third, and damn near the fourth as well. Then suddenly, Goran got the upper hand again, reeled off a sublime series of points and won going away.
His other opponent was Todd Martin, a man who every year astounds me with his resemblance to a Thunderbirds puppet. He is one of Wimbledon's annually incarnate Dangerous Floaters; a man who can tap a service like Martin will always win a match or two here.
The match was held out on the ghastly and bumpy No 13 Court in a swirly wind, so things were ripe for a possible upset, and for a set and a half, Ivanisevic did his best to oblige. Then Goran strutted his belated stuff and won 7-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6.
It was odd to see, during one of the interminable rain delays of this tournament, a recording of Ivanisevic playing the final of 1992. He looked comparatively sane in those days but, even then, you did not have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that here was an unusual psychological specimen. And he really should have won that day. In six years, he has not been able to shake off that truth.
Ivanisevic has become more ornate in the intervening years, letting his freak flag fly, as the song has it. The hair is longer and wilder and no more than half-controlled by the Montmartre-Apache headscarf. The beard could be a sound ploy - it worked for Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon five times in a row - and it adds a decidedly wild note. Here is a man, the beard proclaims, for whom the proper mechanisms for control do not exist. As if we did not know that already. "I just don't want to shave," he said of the latest fashion statement. "I am lazy."
By their press conferences ye shall know them. They give themselves away in that eerie, unforgiving arena within an arena, even, or perhaps especially, those who can utter nothing but coached-in clich? of stupefying blandness.
John McEnroe always gave the best press conferences. There were times when that little crypt beneath the Centre Court, through which the losers and the winners all must pass or be forever fined, turned into a confessional. Warming down is a ritual that all athletes go through after exertion. For McEnroe, the post-match press conference was a kind of psychological warming down.
Perhaps troubled and creative minds need it more than the coached metronomes, because it is much the same with Ivanisevic. You can always tell one of his press conferences from the unaccustomed sound of warm, affectionate laughter.
He spoke of his latest bit of self-reform, his search for psychological redirection as he set up a kind of second surge towards fulfilment as a tennis player: "I did a mistake. I tried to play cool, and I am not cool, you know."
No one has ever accused him of that particular failing. "It is better to explode straight away and be OK." I was writing the other day about the idea of tennis beginning a Campaign for Real People. Ivanisevic is one of the few practitioners of the sport who would unquestionably be recruited, and no one would give you a word of argument. Unless it is Goran himself, because you can never tell which way he is going to jump. But the truth of the matter is that Ivanisevic may be distinctly unusual and sometimes, it seems, not entirely sane - but always he is real. There is no escaping that.
For a start, he makes jokes. He keeps most of the ironies intact, certainly once the match is over and the broken rackets have been put back in the bag. There is no more humanising trait in the world than humour.
Unless it is failure. Ivanisevic should have won a couple of Wimbledons and collected a few other grand-slam titles to go with them. Unless he does so very soon, he never will. The absurd amount of money he has won - US $16 million at the start of the year - cannot buy him the comfort of knowing that he has, once, fulfilled the talent he has within him.
The act of tennis lies somewhere between the elbow and the mind. Goran in full flight is one of the great sights of tennis: the long-levered frame, a mad Zeus hurling thunderbolts, total and ferocious concentration. And then a dog barks and he is off with the fairies. Losing your concentration in grass-court tennis is about as sensible as a fighter pilot dozing at the controls in enemy airspace. Four points with half your mind on the possible weaknesses of the Croatia midfield and you are a break down and the set has gone.
Ivanisevic seems to be preparing himself for the unwanted award of the best player of his generation never to win Wimbledon, following such men as Rosewall and Lendl. But they won a lot of other things. Now or never: "I'm playing maybe the best tennis I ever played here."
Final Goran fact. He has three tattoos on his shoulder: a cross, a rose and a shark. "Does that sum you up?" "Yes."