In June 2001, Goran Ivanisevic looked like he had already joined tennis’s most unpopular club – that of best players never to win a Grand Slam. After winning just nine matches all year, the three-time Wimbledon runner-up had slumped to number 125 in the world. A persistent shoulder injury had nagged him for the best past of three years and the 29-year-old’s best form was a distant memory.
Despite a revival appearing unlikely in the extreme, the All England Club decided to award the him a wildcard to the main draw. And so began one of the most incredible stories in sporting history.
Ivanisevic had reached the number two ranking back in 1994 behind Pete Sampras. The American beat him in the Wimbledon final that year, and again in 1998. That was Ivanisevic’s third Wimbledon final defeat – he lost to Andre Agassi in 1992 – and by far the most agonising. He even said afterwards, “I go kill myself.”
The Croat was best known for a big lefty serve, and for being extremely temperamental on occasions. As he put together his miraculous run at SW19, he famously claimed there were three Gorans: Good Goran, Bad Goran, and Emergency Goran. This was not a new phenomenon. I vividly recall seeing Emergency Goran in 1993 when he slammed down a second serve ace at match point down to British wildcard Chris Bailey.
While that boldness occasionally paid off, his shot selection and accuracy could fall apart under pressure. But that serve remained potent and the green green grass of Wimbledon sparked a renaissance.
The first sign that Good Goran might be back came when he knocked out former world number one Carlos Moya in four sets in the second round. While the Spaniard had never excelled on grass, this was Ivanisevic’s biggest win for some time.
He then dispatched an 18-year-old Andy Roddick in round three before his first big test against another powerful left-handed server in Greg Rusedski. Even Ivanisevic admitted it might not be the most thrilling spectacle: “It’s going to be a beautiful match. Very, very exciting. 15-love, 30-love, 40-love, Game. 15-love, 30-love, 40-love, Game.”
Rusedski was on the decline and Ivanisevic won in straight sets to reach the quarter-finals. And the stars were aligning with Sampras, winner seven times in the previous eight years, crashing out to a young Swiss hopeful by the name of Roger Federer in the fourth round.
Next up, Marat Safin who famously opined that grass was for cows. Four sets later, the 150/1 outsider at the start of the fortnight was through to a semi-final against Tim Henman who ended Federer’s fairytale run.
Now, I’m someone who has long stuck up for Henman. Before Andy Murray came along he was the best British male player (better than Rusedski despite not reaching a Slam final) in my lifetime. He was a genuine world class performer whose career highlight, in my opinion, was saying “balls to it” by playing serve-volley at Roland Garros in 2004 (after years of early exits) and going all the way to the semi-finals. He should have reached the final too.
Yes, he was a clean-cut posh boy with an annoying fist pump. But underneath that he had some steel about him and, not that it’s big or clever, smoked a bit (although not to Serge Blanco levels).
As a really solid serve-volleyer with a massively underrated one-handed backhand, Wimbledon was his major but he kept bumping into Sampras, losing semi-finals to him in 1998 and 1999. And 2001 probably should have been his year with the American going out early.
Fate had other ideas. Henman came from a set down to lead on the Friday, taking the third set 6-0 in just 15 minutes. Then the heavens opened. On Saturday, Ivanisevic fought back to win the fourth set before the rain came again with the unseeded veteran leading 3-2 on serve in the decider.
And on the third day, Ivanisevic broke to lead 5-3 before serving out to claim victory followed by one of my favourite victory celebrations (behind Marco Tardelli’s goal in the 1982 World Cup final) when he stands on his chair and nearly takes out the umpire with his racket in his outstretched arms. Afterwards he was in no doubt as to what had occurred.
“This is destiny. God wanted me to win – he sent the rains.”
In the final he would meet his good friend Pat Rafter. The Australian had come through an epic semi-final against Andre Agassi for the second year in a row. I actually taped Agassi-Rafter Mk II knowing it would be good – the classic match-up between serve-volleyer and baseline counter-puncher. I was not disappointed.
Taking place before Ivanisevic-Henman, Rafter fought back from two sets to one down and then 5-3 in the decider to go through 8-6 in the fifth.
With the final taking place on “People’s Monday”, there was an electric atmosphere. Despite knocking out the home hero, underdog Ivanisevic had plenty of support but his fans were outnumbered by Australians including the all-conquering cricket team over for the Ashes. Wimbledon is suddenly a cross between Walkabout in Earls Court and Hajduk Split’s home ground and all the better for it. Spectators are shouting out between points and no-one cares, not even the players. It’s raw, vital and absolutely riveting with the action matching it.
Both men played some magnificent tennis with Ivanisevic going two sets to one up. Bad Goran had been largely absent for the fortnight but he arrived with bells on in the fourth set which was going with serve. Trailing 2-3, Ivanisevic double faults on break point (starting with a rare foot fault – starts at 10:30) and loses the plot, hurling his racket and almost hilariously kicking the net. Rafter closes out the set to set up a decider.
After more superb play, Ivanisevic finally breaks for 8-7 to put him on the brink of that elusive Grand Slam title. Then you can see the sheer mental torture as he tries to serve out for the championship. A nervous volley which he probably should have left alone and a double fault leave him at 15-30. Enter Emergency Goran. A second serve ace for 30-30 and then a first serve ace for match point.
Practically in tears, he asks the ballboy for the same ball but then serves a double fault as he goes for another big second delivery. He brings up another match point as Rafter nets a backhand return but double faults again. Match point number three turns up when Rafter just misses with a backhand down the line. Ivanisevic prays at the spot where the ball lands, but then the third seed comes up with a wonderful lob to stay alive.
Rafter puts another backhand return into the net and it’s match point number four. Again, Ivanisevic requests the same ball and he makes a serve which his opponent returns into the net. Goran Ivanisevic is Wimbledon champion.
The following week, he goes home to a massive celebration in his hometown Split. Wearing the New Jersey Nets jersey of Drazen Petrovic, the Croatian basketball great whose life was cut tragically short at 28 in a car crash, he addresses his adoring public before, in true Goran style, stripping down to his kecks and throwing his clothes into the crowd.
That was the last title of Ivanisevic’s career as his shoulder deteriorated further. He had surgery the following year and bowed out in 2004 on Centre Court after defeat to Lleyton Hewitt.
Rafter’s career ended somewhat sooner. Lacking motivation and struggling with injuries, he retired at the end of 2001 after a heartbreaking Davis Cup Final defeat to France on a specially laid grass court in Melbourne Park.
2001 was also the end of Wimbledon as we knew it. The All England Club relaid the courts with extra strong rye grass leading to higher and slower bounce, and this combined with a slightly larger and heavier ball took the game away from the serve-volleyers. The effect was immediate.
Despite the changes, Henman made the semi-finals again in 2002 but went out to Hewitt who beat David Nalbandian to clinch his only Wimbledon title. Then came the Federer era.
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Also published on Medium.