Dream send-off for the wildest card of all

Every generation has a Goran, insists the man himself. Ronald Atkin salutes the one and only

It is not in Lleyton Hewitt's nature to stand aside for anybody, particularly on a tennis court. But his thoughtfulness on Friday in retreating to the edge of Centre Court to let someone else bathe in the plaudits was as heart-warming as it was spontaneous. Good on yer, mate.

Hewitt had won, with ease, to draw the curtain on the remarkable career of Goran Ivanisevic, an occasion blessed not only by dry weather, but with sunshine added. Somebody up there really does like Goran, as he has always claimed.

Having become the unlikeliest Gentlemen's Singles Champion of all time in 2001 as a wild card with a world ranking of 125, Goran faced frustration at his inability first to defend that title and then even to contemplate a return to a location which was every bit as much his living room as Boris Becker's.

The left shoulder which had pumped thousands of aces gave out, and it was the subsequent operation which kept Ivanisevic away in 2002. Then last year an infected foot, the result of a bizarre accident when he stepped on a shell on Miami's South Beach, extended the absence.

This time, despite the on-off state of that shoulder which has reduced what was the world's most feared serve to pussy-cat status, Ivanisevic managed to go the distance on his pilgrimage. He was given Centre Court to play on, not once but twice. He won two matches and, as he had hardly dared hope, lasted for the first week, long enough at any rate to mark up his 600th victory as a professional. On Friday night Goran dined at an Italian restaurant near Harrods as guest of the Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone and his Croatian wife, Slavica, and yesterday he was flown home to Split on one of Ecclestone's private jets, just as he had been after winning Wimbledon three years ago.

"The last time I was there with Goran was in 1998 when he had lost the final to Pete Sampras," said Neven Berticevic, a Croatian sportswriter and long-time follower of the Ivanisevic caravan. "Everybody was trying to be jovial then, but he was really pissed off. That was the one he thought he was going to win. But on Friday night, even though it was the end, everybody was in great mood.

"He told me, 'Everybody in tennis says you stop and then maybe try to come back again. But I would be crazy to try to come back after what happened to me on Centre Court today. Can you imagine a better send-off than that? No way. It was everything I dreamed about. To go out at the place I almost call my second home, to have such a reception and to finish my career against the player who won here after me is more than I could have asked for'."

Ivanisevic left Centre Court wearing the No 10 Croatian football shirt of his friend and former star player on the national team, Zvonimir Boban. There will, of course, never be another Goran, although Ivanisevic himself thinks someone will come along eventually. "Every generation has its own Goran," he said. "Safin is close. But I don't understand him sometimes. He's Russian."

As for his Davis Cup team-mate Mario Ancic, dubbed Young Goran when he first came on the scene, Ivanisevic said: "I don't know what funny stories he is going to tell you in the press conference, but he's a funny guy. As for me, I always said what I meant at that moment. I said lots of stupid things in my career that cost me. But that's me. That's why a lot of people like me. But nothing changes me. Even when I won Wimbledon I stayed the same. I was the same before and probably when I'm 50 I'm still going to be the same. It's me. I like myself. I'm OK.

"I'm going to miss everything. I'm going to miss the guys I spent so many years with. I'm going to miss serving aces on 15-40, 30-40. I'm going to miss talking to the umpire - sometimes bad, sometimes good. I'm going to miss waiting for the rain to stop. I gave all my life to this sport and I still don't understand that it is finished.

"I'm still mixed up in my head a little bit. I'm probably going to realise in the next couple of days when I think about going to practise. I'm going to tell myself, 'Man, no more practising'. I'm going to hide the rackets, so I don't go and practise again. But I'm going to miss everybody, everything."

One of Goran's biggest regrets was that No 2 was his highest ranking. "But," he insisted, "to be number two behind Pete Sampras, for me that's the biggest honour because he is the best player in the history of tennis. That year when I was number two he won three Grand Slams, so I didn't have any chance to be number one. Only if I shoot him, and I didn't want to do that. So it was tough."

Goran also reckons Sampras as his toughest opponent. "He is the guy who only gives you two chances per match and if you don't take those chances you're finished. But also Andre [Agassi] was a very tough guy to play. Becker, another guy. His serve was unbelievable. But I think that Federer is the biggest talent from all the people I ever played.

"I don't know if he is going to win as many Grand Slams as Pete, but definitely he's the most talented guy I ever played. Some things he does better than Pete. On the court he's like a magician. When you look at him you think tennis is a very easy sport. But it's not."

Tennis will not be losing Goran entirely. He has a few exhibitions lined up, including one in London in the autumn. He also intends to play for Croatia in their Davis Cup World Group qualifying tie with Belgium in Rijeka in September, but only in a dead rubber. Croatia's non-playing captain, Nikki Pilic, who led Germany to three Davis Cup triumphs, has already stated his intention to stand down and let Goran take over the reins if he wishes. And it appears he wishes. For now, however, there is the warmth of that Centre Court standing ovation to relish. At the end of his media conference on Friday evening he received another ovation, an unprecedented one, from the assembled journalists, which prompted him into this touching final word.

"One more thing," said Departing Goran. "I'm going to miss you, all of you. Thank you. Some of you started with me, some of you were here before me, some of you are new. But thanks for all these 15 years, for writing good, for writing bad, for writing whatever you wrote. I had fun, you had fun. Enjoy." We did and we will, Goran.

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