It was reassuring to hear Goran Ivanisevic credit God for bringing the rain to save him against Tim Henman four days ago. Having been on nodding terms with the late Fred Perry, Britain's last men's singles champion, in 1936, your correspondent was keen to scotch a scurrilous rumour that Fred may have beckoned the dark clouds over the Centre Court.
Henman, stoical as ever, refused to take refuge in excuses yesterday after losing to Ivanisevic in the semi-finals, 7-5, 6-7, 0-6, 7-6, 6-3. "When you analyse it," Henman said, "I lost my serve twice in a five-set match, and I have to give Goran a lot of credit." The drama in three acts – Henman's ascendancy to lead by two sets to one on Friday before being thwarted by the British weather; Ivanisevic's recovery in the 51 minutes played on Saturday to lead in the fifth set, 3-2 with serve; and Ivanisevic's 14-minute wrap-up yesterday – left many home supporters feeling flat, and perhaps let down.
But anybody who accuses the British No 1 of wimping out or concludes that this was his last chance of Wimbledon glory deserves to be tied to a net post while Ivanisevic blitzes them with 130 mph serves, every hit earning a donation to charity.
Ivanisevic, the first wild card to reach a Wimbledon singles final, advanced to meet Australia's Pat Rafter today chiefly because his nerve remained strong when his protracted duel with Henman reached the point where the latter was running out of games to hold, in between trying to crack the Croat's almost unreturnable serve.
Although regarded as a slow starter, Ivanisevic had been businesslike when the players returned to the court on Saturday, atoning for the blip of a double-fault at 3-4 in the fourth set by whisking the break point from Henman's grasp with a solid serve backed by a forehand volley as crisp as his opponent's best.
Henman saved two break points at 5-5, and during this game Ivanisevic improvised a shot for the archive, hitting a forehand winner past Henman while still on his knees after slipping. The point, while not decisive in that particular game, underlined the spirit of Ivanisevic's entire campaign.
The subsequent tie-break took Henman as close to victory as he was to come. Henman led, 3-1, with a mini-break, but his serve on the next point was not good enough to prevent Ivanisevic from hitting a return to his feet, and Henman's forehand half-volley in response plopped into the net. Ivanisevic went on to take the shoot-out, 7-5.
Serving first in the final set, Ivanisevic offered Henman little scope in the opening five games, before rain again caused play to be suspended overnight. Ivanisevic, no stranger to Wimbledon weather, joked that it was like a cricket match. Henman's supporters began to brood on the boundary.
When yesterday's drizzle cleared, and the players arrived on court for the concluding stanza, Henman's supporters injected as much vocal optimism as they could. Roger Taylor, Britain's Davis Cup captain – who met with defeat in three Wimbledon semi-finals – applauded with the rest and joined in the chanting of, "Hen-man! Hen-man!" Henman, serving at 2-3, 30-15, struck the first ball at 1.15 pm, and held to 30.
Ivanisevic double-faulted on the opening point of the next game, and Henman then returned a second serve for 0-30. When the cheering subsided, Ivanisevic got back in the groove: service-winner, ace, service-winner, ace. The tension reverted to Henman, serving at 3-4. He started the game with an ace, but then netted backhands from successive Ivanisevic returns of serve and a second serve, at 15-30, was dispatched by Ivanisevic with a cross-court forehand.
Henman served well enough to save those two break-points, but then double-faulted to gift Ivanisevic a third. In a flash, Henman's 102mph serve was returned to his feet, and he flipped a forehand half-volley into the net. Ivanisevic, serving for the match at 5-3, double-faulted to 30-30 and again on his first match point at 40-30.
With a characteristic flourish, he delivered his 36th ace of the match with a second serve, and completed the task with a service winner before sliding to the ground and laying on his back in triumph. The match had taken three hours and three minutes spread over three days which at times seemed like three months.
After offering his opponent a word of consolation at the net, Ivanisevic stood on a couple of courtside chairs, whooping in joy. Henman gathered his rackets and his thoughts and applauded the crowd before leaving the arena for another year. "Today was a match of the nerves, nothing to do with tennis," Ivanisevic said afterwards. "It was about who was going to have more nerves and guts to win the match. When I served for the match, my shoulder felt like 58 kilos. But I did it."
"It was a tough, tough match," Henman said, "but he was the one that came out on top. Sometimes those breaks for rain can hinder you, sometimes they can help. It certainly helped me against Todd Martin [in the fourth round], but having won 10 of 11 games against Goran on Friday, I felt I was in the process off dismantling his game.
"Coming back the following day, he had a chance to regroup and regain his rhythm with his serve. But I can't complain about that." Henman, due to mark his 27th birthday in September, has now lost in three Wimbledon semi-finals, the previous two against Pete Sampras in 1998 and 1999. "I'll make sure that I come back to do even better here," he vowed. "I certainly feel, with my game, that I'm better than the vast majority of players on grass. Add to that the fact of playing at home, playing with the support I have.
"In my heart, I know that I will win. It's my job to make sure that I keep working at my game. We'll just have to wait and see whether I achieve it."Reuse content