CONDEMNED TO WIN: GORAN'S GREAT YEAR - 1996
By Edmund Toombs
The hottest player in men's tennis so far this year is not Pete Sampras, nor is it Agassi, Muster, Chang or Becker. The man in the best form at the moment is surely Goran Ivanisevic. What is the world coming to?
As I write these lines, Ivanisevic is about to participate in his seventh final of the year at the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Florida. With four tournament wins to his record, no other men's player can boast comparable success this season. After a miserable 1995 that saw him reach but one ATP final and drop to #10 in the world rankings, he is now likely to start April in the top five.
Certainly, the 24-year old athlete from Split, Croatia has the physical tools to rival the best players in the game. He is a gifted athlete: 6'4" (1.94m) tall, supple, and blessed with extraordinary hand-to-eye coordination. His serves are explosive: his second serve is a bigger weapon than many players' first balls. And he complements the serve with wicked returns and better than average groundstrokes. Technically speaking, most observers feel his biggest weakness is a substandard volley which suffers from lazy preparation and slow reactions at the net.
Psychologically, however, Ivanisevic has always been an enigma. He has been considered the textbook case of a talented underachiever, a player who could rise to great heights if he could only do something about the mysterious workings of his mind. He has often been prone to inexplicable lapses of concentration, and worse yet, has often not seemed to care when his mental walkabouts cost him a match. Many observers speculate that the terrible strife in his homeland must have taken have relegated tennis to a lower priority on many occasions.
Near the end of a disappointing 1995 campaign, his respected coach, Bob Brett, decided he could take no more frustration at the hands of Ivanisevic. After Goran had suffered yet another disappointing loss last October, Brett suggested they practice the following morning at 8:00. Ivanisevic refused, saying "I am not going to practice, because practice or no practice I can't win." Feeling he was unable to get through to the moody Croatian, this was the last straw for Brett, and he abandoned his talented pupil.
To replace Brett, Ivanisevic opted for a little-known Croatian, Vedran Martic, to replace Brett as his coach. The change has been beneficial. The two have known each other for many years, and the communication has been excellent between them. Martic has succeeded in getting his pupil to play more relaxed, instinctive tennis. And Ivanisevic seems much more at ease with his compatriot at the coaching reins. "It's better for me because he speaks Croatian. He's young, I have more fun, I'm enjoying it all more at the moment."
Did his former coach's departure serve as a wake up call for the Ivanisevic? One would certainly get that impression. When asked at the recent Indian Wells tournament whether Brett's exit had a beneficial shock effect, Ivanisevic playfully replied: "I was shocked for the rest of the year, but that shock helped me. I won Munich then; now I am continuing to play good with that shock, you know."
But the Croatian bomber has confirmed the fine form he showed in Munich: and how! Prior to the Lipton final, his 1996 match record stands at an astonishing 38-4. A third-round loss at the Australian Open to the gritty Italian, Renzo Furlan, has been the only truly dark moment of Ivanisevic's brilliant season.
Tennis fans were anxious to see Ivanisevic measure his new, improved game against the world's best, Pete Sampras, in Rotterdam last month. Sampras and Ivanisevic were the top two seeds, and a final seemed inevitable. Regrettably, an ankle injury forced Sampras to withdraw in mid-week, depriving fans of a showdown.
The eagerly anticipated Sampras-Ivanisevic confrontation finally took place at the semifinals of last week's Lipton. With Ivanisevic trailing 2-6, 0-1, a downpour delayed the match. Seemingly on his way to a trouncing, a tense Ivanisevic got the welcome chance to relax, joke, and plot strategy with his buddy/coach, Martic. When the players returned to the court, Goran was a new man, and swept Sampras in the final sets for a 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 win.
Now that Goran's strong tennis has become the dominant force on the tour, tennis fans around the world ask the question: can he keep it up? One has to wonder whether his backbreaking schedule will take its toll on his successes. He is scheduled to play every week from now until June, and already admits to being fatigued. But Goran adds (tongue in cheek, I hope) that he's so hot, he can't lose even when he tries to. "My body tells me every week to lose but it is tough to do so. Every time I try to lose I win anyway." Those wins just keep on coming!
Regardless of whether Goran cools off during the European clay court campaign this spring -- remember that his record on clay was a respectable 18-6 last year -- his current form must certainly scare the wits out of the likes of Sampras and Becker as they look ahead to Wimbledon. The old, inconsistent Goran came agonizingly close to winning the tournament on several occasions. One wonders what the new, improved model will be able to accomplish.