If Goran Ivanisevic loves London, the scene of his sensational Wimbledon victory five years ago, London loves him right back. Had he ever doubted that, those doubts were swept away as surely as his semi-final opponent, Cedric Pioline, in the BlackRock Masters at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday.
A packed arena acclaimed the 35-year-old Croatian as he blitzed Pioline with 23 aces to win 6-4 7-6 in exactly an hour. Seven of those aces came in succession towards the end of the second set, four in a row in the tiebreak, hammered down at speeds up to 130 mph.
Pioline's advice to the winner of the other semi-final between Marcelo Rios and Paul Haarhuis was to bring a helmet to this afternoon's final. A helmet would have helped avert the sore head suffered by a line judge who was struck a resounding blow while managing to confirm that she had been hit by an ace - Goran's 13th, as it happened.
Apart from feeling a little pain early in the match from the long-term damage to the shoulder of his serving arm, Ivanisevic said he had served better than in 2004, the year he retired from the ATP Tour. "I am happy to know that," was poor Pioline's reaction.
At one point, attempting to return the unreturnable, the Frenchman, twice a Grand Slam finalist in his time, retreated far behind the baseline, only to be aced again by a dink. To show there was no ill feeling, Goran smacked his next serve into the second tier of the grand old building.
"It is difficult to play bad in this beautiful and relaxing arena," said Ivanisevic. "On this type of fast court I feel I could beat anybody, but I am not used to playing four matches in a row. But tomorrow is the last day, and then I am going to hide my rackets away."
Ivanisevic said that, while enjoying the sporadic involvement of the seniors' tour, he had no intention of considering a return to the professional life. "For that, I say thank you very much, but no." What had persuaded him to get back into training for the later stages of the 10-event Merrill Lynch Tour of Champions, he said, was the sight of the tour's newcomer, the 30-year-old Marcelo Rios, winning six of the events in succession and clocking up 25 straight wins. Ivanisevic put a stop to that in Frankfurt last month, winning the title.
To triumph again in London this afternoon would complete the mission for Goran, since he qualified for the Albert Hall a year ago but pulled out to help prepare Croatia to win the Davis Cup final. It would indisputably provide a lift for the tour, which is in danger of suffering with the inevitable eclipse of the 47-year-old John McEnroe and a growing shortage of fresh names big enough to qualify for this tour: you must either have been a world number one, a Grand Slam winner or a member of a Davis Cup-winning team. There is no longer a lower age limit, but one may be reintroduced following Rios' sweeping successes in 2006, his first season after retiring from the main tour two years ago with back trouble.
Next year, the Tour of Champions could see the arrival of big, new names like Pat Rafter, Michael Chang and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Grand Slam champions all.
And the grumpy, unpopular Rios? A Tour spokesman pointed out that, in addition to meeting the qualifying standards, a player needs to be invited. Despite Goran's defence of Rios as "not a bad guy, just different", that invitation may not be forthcoming.