Albert Hall Masters: Ivanisevic offers his services to find Britain more Murrays
Right now our sports coverage could perhaps do with a bit of a rest from any further mention of Croatia's sporting skills. Fat chance, because breezing into London tomorrow for a week of walloping aces and talking up the marvels of his homeland is Goran Ivanisevic, Croatia's best-known and most popular athlete.
Goran is here for the BlackRock Masters tennis tournament at the Royal Albert Hall, aiming to go one better than his runner-up achievement of a year ago in this event, which features a dozen of the world's top seniors. More of that in a moment, but first let us permit the 36-year-old Wimbledon winner of 2001 to sound off about his second-favourite sport, football. "I would have liked to see England qualify but they didn't deserve it," he says of his nation's 3-2 Wembley win.
"England think they are better than they are, so perhaps this will make them realise they are not so unbelievable. Steven Gerrard and Joe Cole are two of my favourite players, but the others don't impress me at all."
Thus speaks someone who is a close friend of Croatia's manager, Slaven Bilic, and who not only played for the national team in a friendly to mark the retirement in 2002 of his other great footie mate, Zvonimir Boban, but scored his side's only goal in a 2-1 defeat by a team of international stars. Goran still uses football to stay in shape, because the chronic condition of his left shoulder severely restricts the amount of hours he is able to put in on the tennis court these days. He has competed in only three of the year-long BlackRock Tour of Champions events culminating in this week's Albert Hall occasion.
"The shoulder is up anddown, less pain than before but I still have to take painkillers when I play," he said. "Sometimes I don't touch a racket for a month, maybe two months, then I go and play every day for a week. But I need to have fun to play nowadays."
That Ivanisevic is still good enough at the top level was indicated in the rejection of an offer to play doubles in the Davis Cup tie against Britain at Wimbledon in September when Croatia faced a selection crisis.
The man who two years earlier had turned down what would have been his Albert Hall debut to support Croatia in their first Davis Cup final had lost interest in further involvement, acknow-ledging that he is disappointed not to have been made the non-playing Davis Cup captain. "I fell out with the Croatian authorities over it," he said. "Now I have no relations with the federation." Then a thought occurred. "Maybe some other country wants me. I would be happy to come here and help out. There is a big problem in Britain, so [many] involved in tennis with so much money and you have only one player, Andy Murray. Something is wrong. I think there are a lot of Murrays here but you have to find them. I would love to work with the kids here in Britain."
Six years after he edged past Tim Henman in a rain-wrecked semi-final and went on to become the only wild card ever to win Wimbledon, Goran remains mystified at his enduring popularity here. "I should be public enemy number one after I beat their favourite in the year he was supposed to win Wimbledon. They should never let me back in the country. I remember watching TV afterwards and thought I'd caused a national disaster. I always believed they just saw me as this crazy guy from Croatia who smashed rackets and had lost three previous Wimbledon finals [1992, 1994 and 1998]. But it seems they love me."
Goran has never since spoken to Tim about that 2001 match, acknowledged by Henman as his best-ever chance for a Wimbledon title. "I don't want to kill him even more by mentioning it, to remind him of the rain and the fact he led by two sets to one. I think whenever it rains he sees my face in the clouds.
"But it doesn't matter that Tim never won a Grand Slam. I get angry when I hear what people say about Tim in England. He is not a failure, and anybody who views him that way is ignorant. He has done so much for British tennis; they should build him a statue next to Fred Perry."
Perhaps there will one day be a statue in Croatia to Ivanisevic, the man who won 21 other singles titles besides Wimbledon and who earned just under $20m in prize money in a 16-year career. He now makes his home jointly in Monte Carlo and Zagreb with his partner, the former model Tatjana Dragovic, and their children, five-year-old Amber-Maria and a son, Emanuel, born in October. There is a 70-foot yacht moored in Split harbour bearing Goran's owner-ship, so his decision to play on the senior circuit has more to do with comradeship than the need for money. "It is getting more competitive with the younger guys coming in, I am enjoying it. It's different to the main tour, where if you lost you locked yourself in your room, shouted at the wall and went crazy. On the seniors we are all friends, we have a beer, though we all play to win and hate to be beaten."
So there is a guarantee for the Albert Hall that there will be competitive tennis aplenty this week, with a torrent of aces from Ivanisevic, the man whose 1996 record on the ATP Tour of 1,477 aces in one season still stands.
Albert Hall field: Ivanisevic, John McEnroe, Sergi Bruguera, Henri Leconte, Cedric Pioline, Paul Haarhuis, Anders Jarryd, Michael Stich, Pat Cash, Guy Forget, Wayne Ferreira, Jeremy Bates.
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