Home/ Mint-lounge / Features/  The enduring charm of Goran Ivanisevic

There will be drama. You know there will be drama. Goran Ivanisevic is on the tennis court.

So people are here to watch him, even if he is only playing the doubles legends event at the French Open. Watch him win, lose, rifle aces, break a racket, make a racket. He is sharing court with three former champions: Michael Chang, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Carlos Moya. Ivanisevic still draws the loudest cheers. He’s the funny man holding court. For most people present there, he’s also the prince charming of tennis’ favourite fairytale.

A tear-stained Ivanisevic winning the 2001 Wimbledon title, the only wild card and the lowest ranked (125) player to do so, was nothing short of a miracle. It was an emotional, triumphant end to his often tumultuous journey at the grass-court Grand Slam. “Unbelievable" is the word Ivanisevic uses the most while describing it.

Almost 14 years after the day, his eyes still light up at the mention of Wimbledon. On a relaxed Thursday afternoon, with his protégé Marin Cilic already out of the French Open, Ivanisevic, sporting a bright red T-shirt, sits down at the Player’s Lounge at Roland Garros, to talk about the biggest moment of his career, one that people have still not stopped talking about.

“Nobody believed I could do it, even I didn’t believe," says Ivanisevic. “I was just happy to get the wild card, to be back at Wimbledon. I was not expecting much, just that I didn’t want to do too badly."

Since he was not among the top-100, he was unable to make a direct entry into the draw. Ivanisevic was given a wild card on the basis of his performance at earlier Wimbledons. He had made the finals thrice—1992, 1994 and 1998—and lost all of them, the first to Andre Agassi and the others to Pete Sampras.

“After losing three finals you really start doubting yourself," says the Croat. “It was difficult to keep myself motivated. Getting to the final, it was like seeing the big mountain from the distance, and climbing it. And every time you think you are close to the top, Whoosh! It’s like someone hitting you in the head and you have to start all over again."

The biggest blow was the 1998 final, when Ivanisevic defeated former champion Richard Krajicek in a marathon five-setter in the semi-final to set up a title clash with Sampras. The tall lefty with a monster serve stretched Sampras, the best grass court player on the planet then, to the fifth set. But that’s when things started to unravel, and the legs gave in.

“The grass, it looks really nice and green from the outside," he says. “But it is really difficult to play on. It’s hard work. The ball is low, you have to bend. Not good for the knees"

Sampras said it was the toughest challenge he had ever had on grass till then. Ivanisevic declared, “I can only kill myself."

It was always a matter of extremes for Ivanisevic: The “good Goran" who played like a champion; the “bad Goran", who raised hell with his temper tantrums. Rarely anything in between. He did end up almost killing his career after the match.

“I thought that’s it," he says. “I thought I would never win Wimbledon after this. It was a big blow; my career just went downwards after that. The reality of our sport is that no one cares about who came second best, no one remembers them."

Fame was not what he craved though. “I was famous even before I won Wimbledon," Ivanisevic says. “I was popular. People used to come to watch me, like they still do, because they knew I would say something, do something. They thought I was crazy, I only thought I was different.

“Before 2001, I was already having problems with my shoulder. So I was thinking, ‘Just give me one more chance.’"

Wimbledon stepped away from tradition and rather than awarding the wild card to a young and upcoming talent, they gave it to the 29-year-old, faded-out Ivanisevic. The charismatic Croat survived the first week, then in the second, beat Britain’s own Tim Henman in a rain-interrupted semi- final that was played over three days.

“Yes, I did think like fate was lining up," he recalls. “I thought everything was happening for me ever since I won the second round (when he beat Moya). Then against Henman, I was two sets to one down when it started raining, I think it helped me. I was lucky to win that one."

Ivanisevic had been on the verge of disintegrating when the heavens first opened up. He had won all of four points in the third set, which went 6-0 Henman’s way. Once they were back, the Croat dug himself out of the hole, and went on to win the match 7-5, 6-7, 0-6, 7-6, 6-3.

Rain proved his ally once again. The final was delayed to Monday, the tickets were given out at the turnstiles for £40 (around 4,008). The Wimbledon final wasn’t an exclusive event open only to the royalty and celebrities any more. Almost 10,000 fans crammed into Centre Court. Against him was the universally liked and gifted serve-and-volleyer from Australia, Pat Rafter.

“It was a great final. It was played on a Monday. That will never happen again because the Centre Court now has a roof," says Ivanisevic.

“But that was the people’s final and the atmosphere was nothing like I’ve seen at Wimbledon. I was playing against someone whom I really admired. He had already won two US Opens though, so I was thinking just let me win this one."

Like it usually is when Ivanisevic is involved, it was a nerve-racking match. Both players struggled to handle the massive occasion, stamp their dominance. The Aussies were out with their inflatable kangaroo toys and big voices. Cricketers Shane Warne and Steve Waugh (who donned his baggy green), lent more weight to the Aussie support.

Ivanisevic and his box, with his father present, were letting emotions run over as the match veered towards its conclusion. On the last game, with Ivanisevic serving, he almost threatened to melt into a pool of tears.

“It was emotional for all of us," says Ivanisevic. “Growing up, that is the only tournament I dreamed of."

At 40-15, up two match points, he served two double faults. On the third, Rafter scored a winner. Ivanisevic crossed himself, sent a kiss to the heavens. The fourth, a 109 miles per hour (around 175km per hour) unreturnable second serve, finally did the job. After more than 3 hours, he had won 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7, tugging at his fans’ hopes and fears along the way. Prone to expressing every single thing he felt on the court, Ivanisevic was one of the rare talents who reeled people in with his vulnerabilities. They felt his triumph as much as they had felt his heartache before. He was the people’s champion.

“Winning Wimbledon...I made peace with myself and everyone else." “I didn’t care what I did after that," he says, admitting that winning Wimbledon had quite possibly killed his ambition of wanting to win anything after. With the shoulder injury flaring up regularly, he finally quit in 2004.

Ivanisevic will return to London this month hoping to guide Cilic to a Wimbledon win, after having coached him to an unlikely victory at the 2014 US Open. Cilic, whose temperament is a polar opposite of his mentor’s, has the big serve that could well be trademarked by Croatia, but mainly controls the game from the baseline. Will we see a classic serve and volley player rise on the Wimbledon grass anytime soon?

“No," says Ivanisevic. “The game has changed. No one plays serve and volley any more. They can’t win by playing serve and volley. But it doesn’t matter. Because Wimbledon will still be Wimbledon. There will be grass, there will be rain. People will still queue up overnight, they will eat strawberries. And whoever wins will be known as a Wimbledon champion forever, champion of the biggest tournament in our sport," he says, before reflecting back on his unlikely victory.

“I won it when no one thought I would. I don’t know how to explain it..." he says, shrugging his broad shoulders. “But I don’t have to. Because I already did it."

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Updated: 27 Jun 2015, 12:13 PM IST
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