Going... going... Goran

'I'd love to play Centre Court for old time's sake'
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The Independent Online

To be known by your first name only is the stone-cold guarantee of sporting fame. Thus, in tennis, it was with Bjorn and Boris. And thus it most assuredly is with Goran. Everybody, inside and outside the sport, knows that the Goran who matters is the 32-year-old Croatian called Ivanisevic, the one who is saying goodbye to tennis this week at Wimbledon, the place where he wrought a miracle three years ago.

To be known by your first name only is the stone-cold guarantee of sporting fame. Thus, in tennis, it was with Bjorn and Boris. And thus it most assuredly is with Goran. Everybody, inside and outside the sport, knows that the Goran who matters is the 32-year-old Croatian called Ivanisevic, the one who is saying goodbye to tennis this week at Wimbledon, the place where he wrought a miracle three years ago.

As he himself never tires of retailing, there are many facets of the man. Good Goran, Bad Goran, Calm Goran, Wild Goran; all have been on parade in the 15 years since he first appeared at Wimbledon. Now Ivanisevic has produced a new one: Emergency Goran.

Offered the opportunity to play the tournament for the first time since creating history by winning the title unseeded in 2001, Goran seized the chance. It is what has been keeping him and his ailing, aching left shoulder going for those three years, the chance for one more trip to the temple of tennis.

"I could have stayed home and said nobody defeated me after I won in 2001, but I think I owe it to myself to play one more Wimbledon. I want to finish my career at the best place," he said after playing an exhibition match (and winning it) against Nicolas Massu at the Stoke Park Club last Wednesday.

"If my shoulder is fine, my goal is to get through the first week. After that, who cares? This is a tournament I qualified for in 1988, a long time ago. It would be nice to play on Centre Court, the first major court I ever played on in my life, but I don't care what court I play on. I want to look at this facility for the last time. Wimbledon was everything to me, everything started there. I played three finals, two semis and thought, that's it. Then I won it. It took a lot of years of my life but it gave me something in the end.

"We have a special relationship, me and Wimbledon. It's going to be very difficult, the last time, walking to the net, shaking hands and that's it. No more professional tennis."

He needs just three more wins to mark 600 career singles victories but, sadly, the odds are that his first match there could herald that farewell. Airing the hope that he would be drawn against a clay-courter, someone like his victim Massu, Ivanisevic must instead face the Russian Davis Cup player Mikhail Youzhny, the 31st seed and a formidable opponent on any surface.

Goran pronounced the condition of his shoulder as "almost OK" and explained: "One day it's good, the next day bad, but overall it's surviving and hopefully is going to stay like that for Wimbledon."

He is not the only one holding that hope. It is safe to say there has never been a more popular Croat in this country. In that unforgettable 2001 semi-final against Tim Henman, played over three days because of wretched weather, Goran won in five sets, the only opponent Britons didn't mind beating their hero. "They really like me here, I don't know why," he said. "We have a good relationship, they have always supported me. That's why I think I owe this to them, as well as myself. It doesn't matter whether I lose first round, second round. I want to end up there."

That appeared a remote possibility at one time. Unable to defend his title in 2002 because a shoulder operation had not cleared up the trouble, Ivanisevic then missed the 2003 Championships because of a bizarre injury. He cut his foot on a shell after a swim at Miami's South Beach and needed surgery when it became infected. "The beach is 10 kilometres long, there was probably one shell on the beach and I found it," he smiled. "I can injure myself just getting out of bed. My neck got stuck last week. One day it's the back, another day it's the knee."

But always it's the shoulder. He shouldn't really be exposing it to more damage, but it is not for much longer. "The shoulder is like an engine. When you stop, it needs time to get going again. Every time when I wake up I don't know whether I'll be able to serve or not."

The man whose marvellously simple action regularly served up a thousand aces a year has had to accept that it is now a much slower delivery. "I can still hit aces, but I have pain so I am changing a bit, trying to find the best position for less pain. It's not like before: I just tossed the ball and it was automatically going in. Now it's more manual, I am shifting the gears. But at least I can hit a serve. Last year I couldn't."

Ivanisevic describes his speed these days as "slow, like a turtle", but this is the man who threatened to play Wimbledon for the last time in a wheelchair if necessary, who cherished his 2001 victory like nothing else in his life until the arrival of his daughter, Amber, 14 months ago. Goran remembers his 2001 win over Pat Rafter "like it was yesterday", having given himself every opportunity by watching the video thousands of times during enforced idleness at home with Amber and his partner of five years, Tatjana Dragovic. He had turned up at Wimbledon without a tournament title for three years, but he admits appealing to higher authority for help "and God gave me what I wanted. Something was written there, it had to be.

"It also probably saved my life. I don't know what would have happened to me if I hadn't won that afternoon. I was slowly driving myself and everyone around me crazy, and in the end the men in white coats would have come and collected me."

He acknowledges that he should have quit after winning Wimbledon, and would have done if he had realised the nightmare two years that lay in store. So, just for this week, let's cherish Emergency Goran, the man who points out that he intends to come back to Wimbledon in his position as an honorary member of the All England Club.

"I will wear my tie and drink tea," he promised.

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