Why anti-Goran devices do not work

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The Independent Online
After Goran Ivanisevic thundered through his first-round match last week in typical style (straight sets, pile of aces, no rallies) a courageous member of the press cleared his throat and asked him the big one: "Do you feel the way you play is entertaining to watch?"

Nothing if not frank, Ivanisevic did not even pause.

"I don't care," he said. "I don't come to Wimbledon to entertain people. I come here to try and win a tournament."

This afternoon, the man from Croatia's frill-free assault on the men's singles title reaches its trickiest stage - a semi-final against Pete Sampras. Maybe you remember their meeting in last year's final. Then again, maybe you don't. A colourless exchange of heavy artillery fire, it will not go down as one of tennis's more compelling narratives. Sampras cudgelled his way to victory, 7-6, 7-6, 6-0, Ivanisevic crumbling altogether in the third. Straight sets, a pile of aces, no rallies. The match was four minutes shorter than the women's final on the previous day.

Afterwards, Ivanisevic declared in exasperation that Sampras had played "too good".

"What to do?" he asked. "What to do?"

Critics, meanwhile, declared that both of them had played too dreary. On Wednesday an American journalist asked Sampras to look ahead to this afternoon's game, phrasing the question thus: "It's going to be, what, dull-ville, do you think, or what?"

Sampras said he hoped not, but he could offer no guarantee.

Ivanisevic will have heard the abuse before, but what to do? At 23, he finds himself in a uniquely frustrating position: gifted with one of the most astonishing serves ever seen and moaned at for using it. He must occasionally feel like the prodigal schoolchild, chastised by the teacher for spoiling it for everybody else.

Ivanisevic may indeed serve with the kind of aggression more normally associated with seal-culling. And it is true that there are only really three sounds associated with his service games: "Ock" (the sound of his racket on the ball) and then, heard almost simultaneously, "Pumph" (the sound of the ball hitting the back canvas) and a more complicated sound which is the noise of the line judge diving for his life.

But it would be a mistake to confuse this action with brute violence. Ivanisevic laughed last week at the assumption people make that he must be pumping weights all day to achieve this speed. (His service has reached 136 mph; only our very own Greg Rusedski has exceeded that at this Wimbledon, winging one down at 137 mph).

The power, he said, lies in "a very easy motion with the wrist." Ironically, as a skinny child, Ivanisevic used to find all tennis rackets too heavy for him. He grew stronger, of course, and now stands 6ft 4in, but he is by no means muscle-bound.

His is a less devious service than that of, say, John McEnroe, a left- hander like Ivanisevic, and the last one to win Wimbledon (in 1984).

McEnroe bent himself into a hairpin and then uncurled, and could get the ball to move out wide. Ivanisevic settles abruptly into a firm-legged stance, serves in one crisp, businesslike movement. But it is still a breathtaking sight.

So, too, are the statistics. In 1994 Ivanisevic served more aces than anybody - a cool 1,169. At Wimbledon in 1992, he clobbered 207. At this Wimbledon to date, his tally stands at 137. He averages around nine per set. In other words, every time you walk on to a court with Ivanisevic, he is, to all intents and purposes, already 2-0 up.

The tennis authorities are at once impressed and worried by these figures. It would probably be fair to say that all the current initiatives to slow the game down have Ivanisevic in particular in mind. It was following Stuttgart in 1992, when Ivanisevic drilled 105 aces into the far wall, that the ATP Tour began investigating different types of carpet underlay to reduce the pace on indoor courts. The new low pressure balls at this year's Wimbledon have Slazenger written on them, but if you rubbed away at the surface with a coin, you would probably expose the words "Anti- Goran Standard".

Not that it is working. Ivanisevic said defiantly last week: "They can do with the balls whatever they want. I am still going to hit my portion of aces."

There is no doubting his motivation. He seems to be over the surgery he underwent in February for a knee injury sustained playing, of all things, football. If Ivanisevic clears Sampras he could meet Agassi in a re-match of the 1992 final which went to Agassi after five sets and is, in contrast to last year's match, fondly remembered as a thriller.

Another contest like that could correct our perception of Ivanisevic as a one-shot trick, and perhaps also his received image as a somewhat dour chap: service without a smile. A London bookie was reported to be offering odds on Goran cracking even a mild smile during the Championships, much to Ivanisevic's dismay.

"I am not an ice cube," he insisted.

Clearly, his fans sense this. Ivanisevic stood by an outside court on Tuesday watching a junior fixture and igniting uncontrollable giggling in passing girls. The claim at this level is that he has the best bum on the circuit - and the question of whether he is entertaining to watch does not need asking.