How do you write about Wimbledon without the clichés?

Green grass sparkling in the sun, green grass mouldering under canvas rain covers, strawberries, singalongs, Sachin Tendulkar in a suit. It’s all been done, hasn’t it?

That’s the thing about Wimbledon; the images grow larger than the action, memory bigger than the moment. That’s the thing about the British. They know how to invest in rather trivial physical pursuits—ball-smacking in bloomers, in this case—a gravity, an unassailable dignity, a sense that summer or perhaps all of life would not be the same if this Saxon gathering of the great were to disappear.

It is the tremendous weight of this mythology that lands so heavily on the shoulders of the finalists. It buzzes in our minds too, inflecting each moment as we watch triumph and desolation emerge hand in hand—when is one without the other?—under the first blue strains of a London dusk.

In 1992, I watched a giant cry into a towel and it broke my heart. I was on the cusp of 10, an impressionable age. I had not seen this giant before. I had not even heard of his nation. All of 20 years old, he served with his left elbow cocked out, ball cupped in the right palm, one hand ringing around to the other so it seemed, pre-serve, that he had been asked to embrace an invisible pillar.

He was distraught. There were fewer camera close-ups in those days, but you could see the tension pitted on to his face, screaming off his lanky body. The greatest moment of his young life and this 6ft, 4 inches Croat with the weirdly percussive name—Goran Ivanisevic—looked like he was about to be sick.

As with many subsequent battles in my life, I had chosen the wrong side. It would be an unusual nine-year-old boy who did not instantly revere Andre Agassi. He was everything you aspire to at that age. Blond locks bursting out from under his baseball cap, gorgeous actress girlfriend, party-boy. Rich enough to own a private jet, someone told me. He could hit a ball pretty hard too (on my birthday a month later, a classmate gave me a wall poster from that repository of early-capitalist bric-à-brac, Archies’ Gallery, featuring Agassi on the navy-blue courts of Flushing Meadows, mid-air and mid-stroke, Thor-mane and racket-hammer, beneath him the legend “Baseline Buster".)

But back to Ivanisevic, back to that serve. In the mid-1980s, tennis made its tectonic shift out of the wooden-racket era, and the serve became all-important, especially on the quick grass of Wimbledon. Boris Becker, Michael Stich, Stefan Edberg’s kick-serve, each dominated this surface at different times.

But the Ivanisevic serve was like nothing anyone had seen. It seemed as if he hardly tossed the ball; the racket came down like a rapier even before the yellow orb had reached its zenith. This demands serious skill and precise timing.

It also made Ivanisevic’s service seem instinctual. An involuntary fast-twitch reaction, almost Pavlovian, to the rising ball as it dangled momentarily.

Like all extraordinary things, the service was fragile. In that remarkable Wimbledon final of 1992, Ivanisevic hit 37 aces to Agassi’s 9, and 33 serves that forced an error from Agassi. He also hit seven double faults, a couple of them in the crucial final-set game, as he chose to go hard on the second serve instead of playing it safe.

If memory serves right, Ivanisevic broke down, shoulders shaking, shame draped in a Wimbledon towel, before the match had concluded. By that time, I was firmly in the Goran camp. Each time he wound up for the second serve, I’d flinch—but he seemed to know, even at that tender age, the duality of his great weapon, the risk that genius demands, that the fullness of failure looms always.

Ivanisevic was an exhilarating grass court player and not much chop on any other surface. His career was derailed by a torn shoulder, but he also had the misfortune of playing while Pete Sampras was the dominant force of grass court tennis.

The next two times he reached the final at Wimbledon, Sampras was on the other side of the net, with his hangdog expression and thundering game of serve-volley-repeat. In the 1990s, on grass, Sampras was better than Bob Marley, if you’ll pardon the pun. No getting past him.

It took a greater genius, Roger Federer, to stop Sampras in 2001, an encounter which, little could we imagine then, heralded an even finer, longer domination of Wimbledon. But Fed went out in the next round, leaving the field open for the Brit Tim Henman, Ivanisevic’s old nemesis Agassi, a big-serving Australian named Pat Rafter, and, of course, our Goran.

The Croatian had hardly played in two years because of injury. He was only at Wimbledon on a wild card, an invitation to participate, basically, that tournament organizers keep for favoured players who find themselves out of the top rankings.

A tennis Grand Slam is such an exacting competition that no wild card wins. None had done it in the history of the sport. No one has done it since.

Every year, the courts at Wimbledon age as a man does. The Centre Court starts with boy-band hair but by the start of the second week, it is well into its 30s, bald patches growing from either baseline as if creating their own widow’s peak.

The emotions we draw from sport ripen in a similar way. The victories of distant figures mean less, defeats too. As you come to terms with the opportunities available in your own life, it becomes harder to feel sorry for anyone who earns so much, who spends his life doing the thing he was born to do, who enjoys all the trappings of the top-level sporting life.

In the summer of 2001, I’d just finished my first year of college, yet when it turned out Ivanisevic would play the final, it was easy to put adult jealousies aside. Here was a fellow sufferer, after all, and to win it as a wild card, would be glorious redemption.

Three friends and I decided to watch together. I cannot remember if Star Sports had not bought the rights to broadcast the final that year, or if we four were suffering from some brutal misconception, but we planned to watch the match on Doordarshan (DD). Doordarshan, in its uncomplicated wisdom, decided to show the match on delay. This was annoying, but not as dicey as it would be now, when updates on everything from the weather to Kanye West land every second on our phones.

Settling down in my friend’s living room, we turned to the channel a few minutes before the broadcast was due to start. The evening news was on. Should’ve known, should’ve known, but somewhere, perhaps, we felt even DD could not be so jaw-droppingly stupid.

Of course they were. The last item on the news featured a clip of a grass court, a booming serve, tears and a trophy. That was how I found out Ivanisevic had finally won Wimbledon.

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