The Times - 2001
Why we're all just wild about Goran
BY SIMON BARNES
Champion rises from the depths of despair to charm his way into hearts of the nation
HOW splendidly appropriate it was that Goran Ivanisevic was given a wild card for Wimbledon this year. Neither cards nor people get a lot wilder than Ivanisevic. His spiritual home is among the pages of the children’s classic, Where The Wild Things Are. Certainly it would be a waste of time looking for Ivanisevic anywhere else.
He has an untamed quality. Ivanisevic cannot walk onto a court without exciting a frisson of danger. He is man of mood swings: sunny, surreal, philosophical, impish, ferocious, devastatingly charming and uncontrollably ugly.
Such people, at the mercy of their own natures, make dangerous company and they must pay deeply for it themselves. Those moments of wild inspiration have a payback time and it comes in periods of black depression. His up days are very high indeed; those down days are horrible and destructive.
His opponent, Pat Rafter, said that he got over this defeat — a match he might well have won — with a couple of curse-words and a couple of beers. Ivanisevic, after his defeat at the hands of Pete Sampras in 1998, went into a nose-dive of depression that has perhaps only just ended.
On that black day, Ivanisevic had two set points for a 2-0 lead, could not take them and Sampras resumed normal service. The press conference afterwards saw a rare thing — a bunch of journalists trying to cheer up the person who was addressing them. Ivanisevic responded: “I go kill myself.”
And it got worse. A debilitating injury to his left shoulder was destructive of his tennis power and his tennis mind. That shoulder is where the serve comes from and, with Goran, the serve is nothing less than an aspect of himself. The injury was unmanning.
Self-doubt and injury nagged and niggled without mercy. Unforgiving of himself, he abseiled down the rankings. He began this tournament at No 125 in the world. He had become yesterday’s man. After losing in the US Open last year, he confessed — his press conferences sometimes have the air of a confessional — that he was lost. He did not know who he was playing for.
He used to play for his sister who had cancer and she recovered. He used to play for Croatia but the war was over and peace, of a kind, had broken out. Now what? Naturally, someone suggested he start playing for himself.
Ivanisevic said he did not like himself all that much. And where was the motivation in that? It was a revealing moment from a man who does not find all of life an easy business. Last year he played a tournament in Brighton, which became famous for the match of Goran’s rackets. He managed to break three of them and had to default from the tournament because he did not have any more.
And yet Ivanisevic is a man who has always provoked more sympathy than scorn. There is a deeply appealing side to him: that freedom of spirit is not something you run into every day.
And in so much of sport, you find two-dimensional, cardboard cut-outs spouting motivational gibberish and believing that all the problems of the world come down to their top-spin backhand. Ivanisevic is a man you can walk all the way round. More: he is a grown-up.
Sympathy alone did not help his tennis. He failed to get into the Australian Open draw this year and still flew that killing flight to lose in the first round of the qualifying tournament and then fly back again.
Grass courts are always where he is at his best, of course, and he is always deeply loved over here for his charm and his volatility and the inspiring tennis he can play on England’s green and pleasant courts. So he went to the Stella Artois tournament at Queen’s Club four weeks ago and lost in the first round to a small Italian clay-courter called Cristiano Caratti.
However, the committee of the All England Club decided to give Ivanisevic a wild card. He had been a beaten finalist three times, there is always the chance that he might do a bit on grass and, besides, we are all devoted to the man.
He has enchanted throughout the tournament with his surreal press conferences and the unnatural excellence that pervaded his tennis. He gave us the Three Gorans Theory: Good Goran, Crazy Goran and Emergency Goran — the third being the one he sends for when he starts blowing match point. “Ace. Ace. Thank you very much.”
He described that desperate, interminable match with Tim Henman: “It looks like cricket, you know, just we didn’t have a tea break.” And he slept poorly after the first rain delay, lying in bed awake: “OK, is enough, get up, Teletubbies starts at 10am so you have to watch.”
He played warm tribute to the programme yesterday, which he managed to catch, despite the high-noon start. “I watch it this morning. Can’t miss it. Five minutes this morning and everything was under control.”
No one could begrudge a championship to a man such as that. And surely the title has never gone to a man who wanted it more fiercely or received it more joyously.
Ivanisevic came to the tournament as a man who had already had his last chance. It was all over for him: decline and fall had been completed, only oblivion was left. No normal man could have won from such a place. But then I think we are all agreed that Ivanisevic is not a normal man.