Tennis: Courier fells Ivanisevic the terrible: Man of a thousand aces deals himself dud hand

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The Independent Online
IT COULD be argued that Goran Ivanisevic defeated himself in the final of the Italian Open here yesterday. That certainly was how the Croat viewed a dismal performance in losing to Jim Courier, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, in two hours and one minute.

Ivanisevic admitted that he had lost belief in himself before going into the match and also that he adopted the wrong tactics, 'standing back and playing like Sabatini'. It is just as well that Sabatini did not react after losing the women's final a week earlier the way Ivanisevic did yesterday. He tore his shirt off and tossed it aside.

Though Courier remains subordinate on the world rankings computer to his American compatriot, Pete Sampras, the way he demoralised Ivanisevic to retain the title left little doubt that he will be the man to beat when he defends the French Open championship in Paris next week.

Ivanisevic, who has struggled since a stress fracture to a foot caused him to miss the Australian Open, had an encouraging week until yesterday. The highlight was a straight-sets win against Sampras in the semi-finals, in which the lofty left-hander disheartened the world No 1 with his big serve and some intelligent rallying. Sampras has yet to defeat a top-10 player on clay.

Courier, unlike Sampras, enjoys tests of endurance on the slower courts. He has said that if he had to play one match for his life, he would choose to play it on clay. As this indicates, he is the type who will savage a tentative opponent.

While whatever confidence Ivanisevic had gained in his previous matches was draining as the national anthems of Croatia, the United States and Italy were being played during the preliminaries, Courier stood with his hands in his pockets.

This was bad form on a scale that minimises Andre Agassi's neglect to doff his cap to the Duchess of Kent after winning Wimbledon. Courier explained that he had other things on his mind. 'I wasn't listening or hearing any of that stuff,' he said, 'I was thinking about the match.'

His thoughts were so positive that the nervous Ivanisevic was 5-1 down before he knew where he was, and his temper had become as ragged as his game. He recived a code violation for breaking a racket and was fortunate to escape further punishment for two other racket-throwing offences.

Last year's man of a thousand aces was unable to damage his opponent. Of the six aces Ivanisevic hit, three came in sequence to save the opening game of the second set. He was broken in the fifth game, by which time the thunder overhead matched the Croat's mood.

It could not have eased Ivanisevic's frustration that each time one of his numerous supporters went solo in an effort to raise his spirits ('Sei stupendo, Goran]'), Courier responded with an ace, a service winner, or a killing service return.

The American still feels a chill whenever he recalls being one of Ivanisevic's victims when the Croat served 105 aces in a week indoors in Stuttgart last year (a good example of the difference between fast and slow courts) and was taking no chances. 'I'm always wary that he's going to rise up and play great tennis,' he said. 'I concentrated on staying aggressive so that he couldn't take the play.'

There seemed little chance of Ivanisevic taking anything after he was broken in the fifth game of the third set, and he was the first to know it. 'He didn't have to give anything extra today,' Ivanisevic said. 'I stayed too far back. I missed too many shots. I served bad. I was terrible. I always play wrong against him, and today I didn't play at all until I was 5-1 down. He dictated everything. He was all over me. But not only me, everybody. Mentally, he is the strongest.'

Courier has now won four tournaments this year, the same number as Sampras. Moreover, Courier's four includes a Grand Slam, the Australian Open. Even so, his points over a 12-month period are fewer than Sampras's by 284, which is roughly the total Courier was defending here.

Along with the points and a cheque for dollars 240,000 (pounds 156,000), Courier had the distinction of being the first player to successfully defend the title since Jaroslav Drobny in 1950 and 1951. It would be churlish to remind Courier that it took Drobny 11 attempts and three finals before he won Wimbledon in 1954.