Ivanisevic bids farewell to Centre Court

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The Independent Online

And finally the long goodbye came to an end. Goran Ivanisevic arrived at Wimbledon, after an absence of three years, to pen his farewell note and ended up writing another chapter. The sun shone, Centre Court shone and the face of Ivanisevic shone as he bowed out for the final time.

And finally the long goodbye came to an end. Goran Ivanisevic arrived at Wimbledon, after an absence of three years, to pen his farewell note and ended up writing another chapter. The sun shone, Centre Court shone and the face of Ivanisevic shone as he bowed out for the final time.

Never has a defeat been embraced so joyously. As Ivanisevic walked from court, wearing a Croatian national football shirt, it really did seem like time to go. The number on his back was 10 and it was all just perfect. "Best place, best court. I couldn't ask for better," Ivanisevic said before adding "I'm going to miss waiting for the rain to stop." He will be back for tea but there was no need for sympathy.

That Ivanisevic, 32, lost in the third round, after two uplifting victories, to 23-year-old Lleyton Hewitt, completed the sense of closure. After all, the young Australian succeeded him as champion, when injury prevented Ivanisevic from defending his cherished title, in 2002 and competing last year as well. At the end the two lingered at the net. "I just said 'you're a great champion'," explained Hewitt. "It's great when I lost," said Ivanisevic. "I lost to the Wimbledon champion, and the guy who can win anytime if he plays like this."

To do so Hewitt will probably have to beat Roger Federer who, according to Ivanisevic, is the "biggest talent from all the players I ever play in my career".

Given his longevity Ivanisevic is well-placed to judge and he went on to describe Pete Sampras as the "toughest" opponent. His regret? Never being number one. Sampras denied him that but Ivanisevic was gracious in adding: "To be number two behind him that's the biggest honour because he is the best player in the history of tennis." Only if he had "shot" "Pistol Pete" would that have changed, Ivanisevic said. "And I couldn't do that."

Yesterday he couldn't beat Hewitt either but the final scoreline - 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 - did not matter. Indeed this was the first time Ivanisevic had lost here since the first round in 2000 although memories, never to be erased, dwelled on the final the following year which went into extra-time on the third Monday.

"When I wake up, no more therapy, no more exercises, no more painkillers, no more nothing," Ivanisevic said. Instead there may be one last hurrah in the Davis Cup - he then wants to be Croatia's captain - and a stint on the seniors circuit. The great exhibitionist is to play exhibition matches.

Ivanisevic was in the mood to put on a show and in the press room he joked - "how I swear, it was like poetic" - and caught the tone just right. On court, if his tennis couldn't do it then his antics would. He headed the ball, he bantered with the crowd, he played one shot through his legs and, unfortunately, he constantly slipped over as he twisted to and fro from Hewitt's relentless ground-strokes.

Hewitt, meanwhile never "put a foot wrong". Rarely has a top-spin lob been executed so ruthlessly. Ivanisevic's only prop was his serve and as he strained it veered from ace to double-fault and it was just not enough. Without the big dog he lacked bite. The baseline retriever proved too much for the serve and volleyer.

It had been feared the contest would be as much a mis-match as the 5ft 4in motor-racing billionaire Bernie Ecclestone and his 6ft Croatian wife, Slavica. They sat just four seats away from Hewitt's injured girlfriend, Kim Clijsters. Time and again Hewitt turned to her after a triumphant point.

Ivanisevic fought hard but the game was up as early as the fourth of the first set. He saved four break points, but lost on a fifth. In the first set he served eight aces but still lost easily.

Hewitt quickly secured the second set as well and was suddenly serving with three match points. He wrong-footed Ivanisevic to wrap it up in just 86 minutes. "I knew it was the last match, last point," Ivanisevic said of that moment. "But for me, it was a victory." Indeed it was.

Things were more fraught elsewhere. Strangely, the number two seed Andy Roddick confessed he was "anxious" during his apparently routine 6-3, 7-6, 6-4 victory over Alexander Peya. Nerves are not usually what's expected from the breezy Nebraskan although he insisted they had nothing to do with being out on Court Two.

"It's definitely a lot different than Centre Court and Court One," he said. "I'm not used to being able to hear people eating in the dining room, ordering lunch, all that stuff. You know, it's part of tennis, though."

Roddick will now meet Taylor Dent - the nearly man of US tennis - who he destroyed in the Australian Open. Interestingly, Roddick chose to single out the threat of Tim Henman, describing him as "probably the best volleyer in the world". Britain's last hope will now meet the dangerous Hicham Arazi who beat Spain's David Ferrer 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6, and who was part of the Moroccan team that defeated Henman and Greg Rusedski last year.

Another of Henman's recent opponents fared worse. Guillermo Coria, the third seed, said he was suffering from pains in his right arm after losing 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 to Germany's Florian Mayer.

But nothing could detract from Ivanisevic. "I'm going to miss everything, everybody," he said. The feeling is mutual.

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