Ivanisevic rues lack of luck

Unlike some of the dubious line calls, Goran Ivanisevic was in no doubt as to the factor that determined the outcome of his semi-final with Pete Sampras. The American had Lady Luck's ex- directory number.

"All the match I was unlucky," the Croat croaked. "Probably I was born unlucky. I could win in three sets this match, so many chances and every time unlucky. I don't know why I can't have luck one time in a big match. I have to face that. I don't have luck and that's it."

Dear oh dear. While accepting that Ivanisevic did not have the rub of the green, the evidence that the fickle finger of fate put up two digits in his direction is not overwhelming. There are, after all, people in Croatia who could be regarded as being particularly unfortunate. Goran, who has won nearly $9m (pounds 5.7m) in a brief career, is sufficiently lucky to have a residence in tax-free Monte Carlo.

This is the man who has been dealt more aces than the Cincinnati Kid, yet when it comes to the big hand, the pot goes not to Monte Carlo but to Las Vegas (Andre Agassi beat him in the final here in 1992) or Florida (Sampras beat him in the final here 12 months ago).

Last year, Ivanisevic lost 7-6,7-6, 6-0 in a biff, bang, wallop final but yesterday, back on Centre Court, he played his part in a match to remember. Three years ago, against Agassi, Ivanisevic served an extraordinary 37 aces; yesterday he went one better, but still we were back to a familiar refrain.

"I thought I had a chance," he said. "I don't have a chance. Probably every time I have a chance I'm going to be unlucky like today. I mean, final, semi-final, that's the maximum I can do, because every time something is going to happen, some stupid call, or I'm going to be unlucky or the guy is going to play good."

The point is, of course, that Sampras played very good, especially on the major points, and in the field of heavy artillery he had some howitzers of his own. Sampras served 21 aces and had four double faults to Ivanisevic's eight. The American's fastest serve was timed at 129mph, his opponent's at 126.

Nevertheless, Sampras said: "When you're playing Goran it's kind of like riding a rollercoaster, a scary rollercoaster. He has by far the biggest serve in the game, maybe in history. It's not a lot of fun, but it's a huge challenge to return his serve on grass. He hits every corner, you don't know where it's going. It's almost to the point of guessing. To explain it you just have to be there." Er, no thanks.

Both players, displaying lightning reflexes and terrific speed around the court, also displayed the deftest of touches. Breaks of serve were as rare as the rarest of orchids, and the first set tie-break went to Sampras, 9-7. He served two aces in the tie-break, Ivanisevic none. The Croat's serving in the second set was numbing. In five games he did not drop a point, and, with perfect timing, broke the American in the 10th game.

Serving in the opening game of the third set, Ivanisevic threw down an ace, followed by two double faults and immediately lost his serve. It was all Sampras needed. After Ivanisevic won the fourth set to level, he resumed the persona of Ivan the Terrible in the second game of the final set, which he lost on serve after another double fault. Sampras also played a blinding backhand pass and won an astonishing rally at the net.

If it is any consolation to Ivanisevic, Sampras tended to go along with the theory that the match was a lottery and the Croat had picked a bum ticket. "It takes a little bit of luck to win," Sampras said. "Yes, it definitely went my way. Goran missed that easy forehand volley to lose his serve at the beginning of the fifth . . . I don't want to say that everything went my way, but it really could have gone either way. If you pick off one of his serves, inwardly you think you have got a little bit lucky."

The match, although going to five sets, lasted only 2 hours 34 minutes; the first game lasted six minutes, some others less than 50 seconds. Sampras, despite having to wait for the winner of the second semi-final, was sidetracked into believing he would meet Agassi in the final, for at that point Boris Becker was struggling.

"It's going to be a bit different because I haven't played a baseliner yet in my six matches. I might have to make an adjustment." The adjustment he had to make last night was in preparing to meet not Agassi the baseliner, but Becker, the serve and volleyer.

Against Greg Rusedski, Sampras said he wanted to wipe the smile off his face. He could not do that against Ivanisevic because the Croat doesn't smile. "Every one is hard to lose," Ivanisevic said, "but this one was harder because I know I was there and I had him." He is only 23, but as Yeats put it: "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart."