Ivanisevic puts fate in lap of the gods

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The Independent Online

Having outrun his demons, Goran Ivanisevic now wants to make a deal with an angel. The way things are going for the wild, sublimely eccentric Croat we have to suspect the contract will be rubber-stamped upstairs.

When he finally beat Tim Henman, the wholly admirable hero of middle England, there had to be the suspicion that he was riding more than the most ferocious serve in all of tennis, that he was locked into a destiny decided somewhere other than the Centre Court. Certainly he is filled with such metaphysical thoughts himself.

Before completing his three-part 7-5, 6-7, 0-6, 7-6, 6-3 victory for a place in today's final with Pat Rafter, Ivanisevic said that a light was shining when Wimbledon opened its gates two weeks ago and he entered, carrying a wild-card entry and the modest ambition of winning maybe a match or two and a little pride.

Now he proposes the celestial deal. Unlike Doctor Faustus, he is not bartering his soul. But the price is high enough for a man who does not really know what he will do when he walks away from the game.

"If somebody one month ago told me: 'Here is the paper to sign that you going to be in the final of Wimbledon, but you have to lose I say 'give me the paper.' But now you know I don't want to get another [loser's] plate," Ivanisevic said. "I already have three plates. If some angel comes tonight in my dreams and say 'Okay, Goran, you going to win Wimbledon tomorrow but you will not be able to touch the racket ever again in your life,' I say 'Okay, I rather take that and then never play tennis again in my life'."

Such is the strange force to which Henman submitted yesterday, nearly two days after he appeared to have Ivanisevic by the throat and the yearnings of much of the nation within his grasp. Henman, predictably, was as decent and level-headed in the agony of his defeat as you imagine he would have been in victory. Not a trace of angst coloured his view of the cruellest days of a career in which each year he carries the enormous burden of Wimbledon's role in the fantasy life of so many of his compatriots.

If the tragedy of Henman's professional life is to be English sport's ultimate nearly man – an idea he forcefully and with some logic rejects – the fear had to be that this was the day he would crack, and that some of the anguish would pour out. It was, after all, the second Sunday of Wimbledon and he was still fighting for the goal which has become the epicentre of his competitive life.

To get so far, to suffer such an ordeal of gathering tension, was a test of any character, and if the power of Ivanisevic's serve finally engulfed him yesterday, Henman could take pride in the fact that when the prize began to slip away from him in the Saturday gloaming he still managed to play conspicuously well. Yes, he said, he felt he had it on Friday, he sensed that he was dismantling Ivanisevic's game, but it did not happen and the Croat's spirit healed. He would just have to fight on.

No doubt he will do so with pride and honour. What Ivanisevic does is plainly in the laps of various angels and gods and the promptings of his own extraordinary nature.

Ivanisevic crossed himself twice in the moments before his victory. He was already, he admitted, opening up negotiations with the head office beyond the clouds. He reported: "First time I cross myself on match point I say 'God, if I miss the first serve I going to hit another big second serve. And, please be good.' So then I hit that. Okay, no problem. Maybe God is on his lunch and didn't see me. But you know I thank only God that I'm in the final. He just gave me another chance. He say 'Man, you were so annoying always asking another chance, so okay I give you another chance. We see, can you do it tomorrow or not'."

For two weeks now Ivanisevic has been delving deep into his reserves of talent – and motivation – to provide one of the most extraordinary stories of this fabled tournament – and all of sport. A burned-out case when he arrived and saw that light, sliding irrevocably it seemed from the level at which he fought into three previous finals, losing once to Andre Agassi and twice to Pete Sampras, his achievement is re-kindled ambition which is now dazzlingly close to fulfilment.

There has, however, been some torture on the way. He slept relatively well before yesterday's sweep to the final, a burst of fierce serving and growing confidence which took the three games which followed the taut Henman service game which levelled the fifth set at 3-3. But Friday night, when his game had come so close to disintegration as Henman ran through the third set 6-0, was a nightmare. "I slept badly," said Ivanisevic. "I was waking up every two hours, thinking, you know, maybe the clock is not going to go, I'm not going to wake up. I was watching all the time what was the time... it's six, okay, go back to sleep... seven, go back to sleep. I was happy when I got to 9.30...' Okay, it's enough, get up. Teletubby starts at 10 so you have to watch." The image of Goran Ivanisevic, hero and wildman of Wimbledon transfixed by the Teletubbies, is bizarre yet its rings beautifully true. He is, after all, a man-child of a superhero, quirkish, erratic; one minute the Lion of Croatia, the next the Tin Man. It will not help the reflections of Henman that just before the rains came on Friday night he had cornered the Tin Man. Yesterday the Lion had re-appeared, running up his match total of aces to 36 and finding again a touch with his returns that had so startled the reigning US Open champion Marat Safin earlier in the tournament.

In all the extremes of his multiple personalities, however, there is an enduring theme. It is of pride. That, certainly was the spur of an attack on his boyhood hero John McEnroe, who had been scathing in his appraisal of Ivanisevic's all-round game even as he marched to the edge of his fourth final. Said Ivanisevic: "McEnroe was my idol, you know, all my life, a lefty and great player who gave so much emotion on court. But I don't think too much of him as a person. He says I have only one shot. That makes me genius or the other guy very bad, because to be in a fourth final at Wimbledon, and to have won 21 tournaments, some of them on clay, with one shot is amazing. But now I say 'who cares about him?' Let it be." Pride, certainly, and some honesty too. He concedes that the gods came to his aid when Henman was so close to his Wimbledon final. "Tim was playing really well, I couldn't hurt him in any way. He was returning my serve pretty easy. He was volleying unbelievable. So I didn't do any damage. Then guy said 'Okay the rain is here. Let's go home." Yesterday, refreshed and re-born, Ivanisevic returned, swinging. Now, as always, he prays that just once in a Wimbledon final he can walk with the angels.