Tennis / Wimbledon '93: No more aces up Goran's sleeve: Richard Williams reports from Wimbledon

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The Independent Online
LAST YEAR he served more than 200 aces in the fortnight, pushed Andre Agassi to the limit in a classic final, and carried the flag of Croatia in the opening ceremony at the Barcelona Olympics. What a difference a year makes. Yesterday Goran Ivanisevic went out of the third round of the Wimbledon men's singles during a period of his life that he will remember with nothing but sorrow.

After his five-set defeat at the hands of Todd Martin, of the United States, the fifth seed left the precincts of the All England Club within minutes, failing to turn up at the obligatory press conference. For that he incurred a dollars 2,000 (pounds 1,350) fine to go with the dollars 500 penalty imposed for smashing his racket during the match.

A year after his great match with Agassi, Ivanisevic's family is still mired, along with the rest of the Croatian people, in the disaster that is the former Yugoslavia. Three weeks ago, his best friend, the New Jersey Nets basketball player Drazen Petrovic, another national hero, was killed in a crash on the Munich-Nuremberg autobahn. No wonder John McEnroe, speaking on the radio yesterday morning, cast doubt on Ivanisevic's mental fitness to withstand the rigours of this year's championship.

McEnroe's remarks tacitly questioned the true value of that enthralling five-setter against Chris Bailey on Thursday evening. The faltering nature of Ivanisevic's response to Martin's dogged challenge, and the way he folded up completely in the final set to lose 2-6, 7-6, 6-7, 7-5, 6-0, added fuel to the suspicion that Bailey had been given the sort of opportunity to beat the man currently ranked No 6 in the world that may not come his way again.

Martin, a modest giant from Hinsdale, Illinois, is ranked 30th in the world this year, up from 82nd in 1992. He uses his 6ft 6in and 13 1/2 stone to propel a big first service, but he is also capable of strategic thought and tactical imagination. Afterwards, he admitted that his opponent had dominated the first two sets, and that it was mainly luck that had won him the second-set tie-break.

Ivanisevic's febrile temperament beytrayed him in the middle of the match, leading to a warning and a docked point, and later to the dollars 500 fine, but he carried the third set with a second tie-break. There was a sign of things to come when Martin answered one Ivanisevic serve with a chipped forehand which floated away from the incoming volleyer, a touch of Zen to confound the heavy armour.

The fourth set contained the match's most intense passages. There was dazzling play in the fifth game, when the Croat broke the American's serve with the most uncharacteristic rally of a generally abrupt contest, fully a dozen strokes, all of different weights and shades. And there was a rare combination of humour and drama four games later, when Martin, rushing the net, slipped and fell in an ungainly tangle of elongated limbs. He got up, smiled, and brushed himself down. 'Becker would have hit a winning volley off that,' he remarked, to no one in particular. Whatever his own tribulations, Ivanisevic can at least reflect that he had the good fortune to meet a couple of the most delightfully mannered contestants at this year's championships.

As the fourth set went away from him, Ivanisevic began to cast ever more despairing glances towards his coach, Bob Brett, and his supporters. He is the patron saint of tennis's grunge kids, the ones with peach fuzz on their chins and reversed baseball caps on their heads, but on a day like this his customary defiance just went limp. He served 23 aces, to Martin's 16, but only 56 per cent of his first services were good, and a paltry 76 per cent of his second balls. Eventually he was looking like a man in a locked cell, fighting demons only he could see.

The fifth set became a demonstration of steadiness on one side of the net and mental unravelling on the other. Martin took a 2-0 lead when he rolled his shoulders to send a perfect backhand down the line. To extend his advantage to 4-0, he first measured a backhand lob over the stranded Ivanisevic, and then hit the shot of the match: a driven volley picked up from off his toes a yard inside the baseline and deposited just inside the opposite corner. At that moment, having held his emotions in check throughout, he raised his arms and bellowed in triumph.

When he served to love for a 5-0 lead, Martin could have been using a stick of celery and still sent every shot whizzing away for winners. The 'fluence was upon him. Ivanisevic served to stay in the match, but finished himself off with a sad double fault. He had played some wonderful shots from time to time during the match, but the rubber band inside him had finally frayed and split.

Martin, who manages to look clean-cut despite wearing the sort of beard that would not be out of place on a packet of Player's Navy Cut, spoke of the crucial importance of the fourth game of the fifth set, and of the extraordinary long volley with which he ended it. 'That was a game that, if he got out of it, could have given him momentum,' he said. 'When I finally hit that shot, there was a lot of relief and a lot of excitement.' He had learned something, he said, from watching the Ivanisevic-Bailey match, in particular the way the Croat had hit back to break the Englishman's serve in the final set.

Someone asked if he thought Ivanisevic had 'tanked' - in other words, given the match up for dead in its closing stages. The fifth seed had, after all, not bothered to sit down during the final changeover. No, Martin said, he didn't feel that was the case. Nor, having seen both men struggle for supremacy, did most of the rest of us. Martin's persistence had simply ensured the outcome of the game well before its final act.

Those closest to last year's beaten finalist now face the job of repairing his damaged morale. Whether they can succeed, at least in the short term, must be open to doubt. The deep shadows in Goran Ivanisevic's mind are cast by weightier events than the loss of a game of tennis.