Ivanisevic roars into the land of dreams

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When it was finally over, when the most extraordinary story that tennis will probably ever know had run its wild and compelling course with a match that could only be described as titanic, Goran Ivanisevic again slid onto his knees on the Centre Court grass.

He was both a champion and a pilgrim at the end of a hazardous and sometimes soul-threatening journey and for a few heart-thumping seconds he was utterly alone. Alone at one of these extremes of emotion which explain all over again the wonderment of sport, its power to sweep so far beyond the workaday rhythms of real life.

Alone with his glory and his thoughts. So many thoughts filled that fraction of time after he had beaten the superbly combative Pat Rafter to win, at his fourth attempt, the Wimbledon title which for so long had been more of a reproach than a goal. Like so much of his life and his playing career, Ivanisevic's triumph was shot through with almost unbearable tension.

It took him three hours and a minute and five mentally draining sets, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7 to get the better of the twice US Open champion Rafter. But what was that against the fact that he had spent the best part of 29 years getting the better of himself? Now, after a spate of double faults which had plainly torn at his composure, and the surrender of three match points, he had not only victory in the tournament which had come to haunt him but also deliverance from a thousand demons and possibly more angst than you could spread across the rugged mountains of his turbulent homeland.

"At that moment when I won," said Ivanisevic, "all my career and my life went through my mind, from the first moments of it until three Wimbledon finals, everything like flashback in my head. I just couldn't believe it happened. I didn't know where to go. I went to my father, my coach. I mean, I could have gone all day and night on that Centre Court. Nobody could have taken me out. Everything was going on in my head..." So much had gone on in that head. Too much, for his own good, the tennis world decided when he slid down the rankings, when on the build-up to Wimbledon he was expelled from the first round of the Queen's Club by a lightly considered Italian named Cristiano Caratti. Ivanisevic came to Wimbledon carrying a wild card, charitably dispensed by the All-England Club. He left last night an unforgettable champion, bare-chested after throwing still another shirt to another band of cheering compatriots and almost delirious with happiness.

It was not so much the happiness of a man who had won a tennis match but one who had found himself, had clawed his way to the discovery of someone who did not crack when the pressure became so intense that practised observers of the sporting drama could hardly bear to look. That was certainly how it was for many in this strange, electric Centre Court where thousands of Aussies, flushed with victory on almost every available sports field in recent weeks, and lifted by their presence of their mighty Test cricket team, traded cries of encouragement for Rafter with those of the Croat fans.

The Croats received powerful support from the nominally neutral British, who also shouted for the man whose dream had been broken here three times before in a Wimbledon final, once by Andre Agassi and twice by Pete Sampras. Those were defeats which had so plainly scarred this wild but always engaging man, and for some the idea that he would be drawn back into the dark place of defeat yet again by the splendidly talented and resilient Rafter was a prospect about as engaging as a serious road accident.

Inevitably, there were shadows through which to pass. Ivanisevic erupted with a terrible passion when he was foot faulted and then saw a vital ace ruled out by a line-judge, and afterwards he still felt a cruel anger towards the officials who he felt had threatened his day in the sun. He lost that game, had his great weapon, his serving power, snatched away and his followers feared that the loss – in the fourth set – may well have shattered his resolve. He lost the set and later talked of the ugly expression of the women official and the "faggot" appearance of the male line- judge. These were isolated flashes of the worst of Ivanisevic, and no doubt today he will wish to draw a veil over them as he prepares to fly home to Croatia and a huge welcome in his native city of Split.

But of course Ivanisevic, for all his brimming, almost volcanic charm, has had a savage tongue. He remained unforgiving of John McEnroe, the tennis icon who cast doubts about his ability before yesterday's final. Unmollified by reports of commentator McEnroe's approving comments on yesterday's performance, Ivanisevic said he did not want to discuss the man who was once his childhood idol.

He simply wanted to ruminate on the best day of his life, he wanted the deliverance to wash over him. "You know," he said, "I think I'm dreaming. This is so great – just to touch the trophy. They took it away for my name to go on it. But they took a picture of me with it, with my father and my coach. It will be by my bed." Someone wondered if it might go into his bed. "No," said Ivanisevic, "something different in bed." Talking of bed, and his propensity to dream and have nightmares, you had to ask if he had been visited by the angel with whom he had proposed the deal: victory on Centre Court yesterday in exchange for a vow that he would never pick up the racket again. No, he said, angels or demons had not come in a restless night. He could keep open his options, he could play on. Indeed, he looked forward to returning to the Centre Court next year, not as a nearly man, a thunderous but tragic figure, but someone who could walk with the great men of the game – even McEnroe.

"This is so important for me, you know. I have pride in my career but always there was that terrible feeling that I had not won this tournament after having three chances. It made me feel bad and I knew that I would always have it with me, a bad thing to travel with. Now I can come back here feeling a new kind of pride. Yes, when I finally won the title today so much came back to me in a flash." He remembered mostly the pain of those defeats, of going so close with Agassi and Sampras and yet feeling so empty when it was over. He dedicated his victory to a great friend, a fine basketball player who died in a car crash, and he set against all the turmoil and the pain that he had encountered on the way to sending away the torment on a tide of aces. There had been moments of success, but it was the failures which gnawed at him. The three defeats in the final. The failure to win gold at the Olympics in Barcelona when his homeland was fighting for its place on the map. Now they were gone, in a riot of action on the most famous tennis court in the world.

During Ivanisevic's march to his freedom of the soul the umpire called "Quiet, please," no less than 116 times. He was speaking to the crowd. Goran Ivanisevic, at last, had achieved his own little corner of peace.