Tennis / Wimbledon '92: Ivanisevic finds cracks amid the ruins: Paul Hayward on the loser's view of English food, Croatian monkeys and American heroes

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GORAN IVANISEVIC is relieved to be leaving London. 'Every day I've been doing the same things, eating the same food,' he said in defeat yesterday. 'Fish soup, orange juice, lamb with french fries, ice cream and chocolate sauce. I'm sick of it.'

Just a minute. This was supposed to be an inquest. From the pained and sometimes wild-eyed expression Ivanisevic carries round the court you would have expected him to simmer and suffer during the post-match questioning. Instead, he put in a bid for his own television series.

Was it true that he had called the umpire a monkey? 'Probably,' he said in his deadpan, Slavic English. 'I called him some kind of animal. I don't remember which.'

It was also true that a BBC viewer phoned to complain about Ivanisevic's swearing - in Croatian - after lip-reading the player's responses to abuse from a lone opponent in the crowd. 'Somebody was shouting at me,' Ivanisevic said. 'Probably some Serb.'

If only he had played every shot with such timing. For a time you wondered whether Ivanisevic's reputation for being . . . well, slightly crackers, was being validated in this humourous appraisal of his own downfall, but then the realisation set in that the past fortnight has transformed this gifted but sometimes erratic 20-year-old from Split (other address: Monte Carlo). In short, he could afford a little self-mocking.

Ivanisevic's support for his compatriots is, of course, deadly serious, but even here he has discovered a knack for the kind of black comedy he rarely exhibits on court. 'I'm a very suspicious guy,' he said, after revealing that he has been studying his food before eating it, in case a political adversary had added anything harmful. 'The guys in the restaurant think I'm mad.'

The caterers, though blamed for driving him out of the country, are not held accountable for the result of yesterday's match. 'It's good food, and I've been winning with it. It's just that every meal's been the same. In the end I said: 'don't bring me the menu, just bring me the food'.' Why he did not order something different, nobody knows.

Maybe this was an impersonator. In the confines of that hard grass square, Ivanisevic is a fretter, a worrier. When the shirt came off in his metronomically changing match against Andre Agassi, you could see he has the kind of bony upper body that comes with high-metabolism, high- stress. Under pressure he spits, bounces his racket and casts innumerable glances up to his coach, Bob Brett, most of which seem to say: 'I'm sorry.'

In reality he is sorry for nothing. Those who said Ivanisevic was a one-card player - he served 37 aces here to take his total for the tournament to 206 - were forced to recognise a wider talent that will doubtless elicit a few more positive responses when recognition polls are conducted outside Boots and Our Price. In one of his serious moments, he said: 'It's tough. This is my first Wimbledon (final). I gave my best. I lost. It's OK.'

To be part of this ritual was to see an athlete beaten, but calm and sanguine at the end of his own great leap forward. It also drained the tension, the earnestness of the struggle, which proceeded under a drifting, gunsmoke sky that evoked images of Ivanisevic's tunnel-blowing serves. Ivanisevic is 20, is already well past the dollars 2m ( pounds 1.05m) in career earnings and will probably move up to fourth in the world rankings after contesting his first Grand Slam final. Yesterday he arrived, and he knows it.

While Agassi lay prostrate in victory, Ivanisevic stepped across the net - not difficult - to embrace a fellow member of tennis's new wave. The moment of realisation came, he said, 'when he (Agassi) was down on the floor and I was still standing'. Ivanisevic knows that his nerve failed in the psycho-drama of that final set, but even that is unlikely to halt his ascent through the world order.

'He was crying,' Ivanisevic said as he recalled the final union with Agassi. 'I told him: 'Well done'. I told him: 'Listen, you deserve it. You've played great for the last two weeks'.

'Sometimes he had me running left, running right. It was like he was training me, like he was my coach. But I did everything I could. I chased. I was fighting.' This last recollection, he may treasure most.