Ivanisevic armed and dangerous

John Roberts talks to the big-serving Croat who has added a new dimension to his game - one which he hopes will take him to the Wimbledon singles title
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The Independent Online
Pity about the pain in the neck, but things do tend to go awry for Goran Ivanisevic at important moments in his career. Sometimes he is deserted by his mighty serve. Frequently his temperament lets him down. Occasionally he runs out of luck, as was the case when he awoke with the crick which forced him to retire against Andre Agassi after only 10 minutes of the Lipton final in Florida on Sunday.

But for the interventions of Agassi and Pete Sampras, along with an inability to hold his concentration, the 24-year-old Croat would have been a Wimbledon champion by now. That remains his chief ambition, and a distinct possibility judging his fresh approach to the game of late.

Ivanisevic has advanced to seven ATP Tour finals in nine tournaments this year, winning titles in Zagreb, Dubai, Milan and Rotterdam and producing a greater variety in his play than 630 aces would indicate.

His form is brighter (his one success last year was at the Grand Slam Cup in Munich in December) and his mood seems lighter. For example, Ivanisevic and his coach, Vedran Martic, spent most of the 48-minute rain delay which came to his rescue during the semi-final against Pete Sampras reminiscing about old times at the tennis club in Split.

"We were talking about how the kids are very spoiled now," Ivanisevic said. "When we were very young we had to renovate the courts. I was staying very far away from the tennis club, and I always had the job of carrying the clay and the garbage. We started to laugh like idiots thinking about that, like I am winning [against Sampras] 6-2, not losing.''

Then there are the serious contests: card games in which he partners his coach against his parents. "We play an Italian game, briscola, and my father is pretty experienced. It is a big battle of pride, and we are losing all the time. There are all sorts of signs which you are not allowed to do in this game; a little cheating, you know. My father doesn't know that we are cheating, but it doesn't help. I don't like to lose at any kind of cards. The other night they beat us pretty badly, and I couldn't sleep.''

Martic, 29, is as much a companion as a coach. Promising as a junior, he later played mostly league tennis in Germany, where he was studying. Ivanisevic hired his boyhood friend on a year's contract a few months after losing the services of the Australian, Bob Brett, last October.

Brett, who guided Ivanisevic to Wimbledon finals in 1992 and 1994, having previously enjoyed success with Boris Becker, finally despaired, concluding that his advice was no longer heeded.

"I wanted to win matches so badly, and I couldn't produce anything good on the court," Ivanisevic recounted. "I was losing to anybody, everybody; it was just not there.

"We came to Essen, and I lost to [Martin] Sinner and then I lost in the doubles at two in the morning, and Bob said to me: 'Eight o'clock, practice.' I said: 'I'm not going to practise, because, practise or no practise, I cannot beat anybody.' Then he said: 'We're finished.'

"Bob had said so many times [before] that we were finished, and after half an hour I would say: 'Sorry, Bob, everything is OK.' But next morning he called me and said he wanted to talk to me, and I went to his room and he showed me a press release he had written. I was shocked. I almost got a heart attack. I knew it was over. I didn't want to beg. It was his decision, and probably he was right.''

Ivanisevic contacted Martic at Christmas and invited him to join him in Australia in January. "I phoned Bob and asked him what he thought of Vedran becoming my coach. Bob gave me full support.

"For four and a half years I was part of Bob's family, and I still have a good relationship with his kids and his wife, and we talk normally. At Indian Wells I did a little jogging at six in the morning, and I was just coming back from running and Bob was going out to run. Before, I never could imagine me running before Bob. That is something unbelievable.''

Ivanisevic finds it helps that Martic speaks the same language and has known him since he was nine years old. "Everybody asks if he is my brother," Ivanisevic said. "He is my coach, my friend, everything. A lot of coaches are just there because they are paid to be there and, OK, they practise with the guy and say, 'See you tomorrow'. I didn't want a coach like that. I want to be good friends, which I was with Bob and have been with Vedran for 15 years.

"What's good for me is that Vedran has put fresh things in my mind, and suddenly I clicked. I know I am probably going to have some tough times, because it is tough to go on like this. But I realise that the next couple of years could be my best years in tennis.

"I have changed my attitude. I am more calm on the court. I lost my mind a little bit in Milan a couple of weeks ago, but that was just for a couple of seconds.''

There is evidence, too, that Ivanisevic is liberating shots which have lain dormant behind a serve which has set records for aces that will stand, he says, "for 200 years, until robots come along''.

In particular, he is executing the forehand down the line to good effect. "It is one of the most important shots in tennis, which I used before once every five months.''

Of immediate concern is Ivanisevic's fitness for a Davis Cup tie in Ukraine, which starts on Friday. After that, his thoughts will turn to the series of clay-court tournaments leading up to the French Open. And then comes Wimbledon.

Ah, yes, Wimbledon. "Wimbledon is another story," he said. "You can't compare any tournament with Wimbledon. I can win every match before Wimbledon, and Wimbledon will come and I can lose. But maybe I can reach another final and play the best match of my life.''