WIMBLEDON '95: Goran's service with a smile

'The bookmakers must be crazy. I smile all the time. I like to joke on the court. It's a pretty stupid bet'
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Out there on Court Two, it was never less than hot, and occasionally verged on the blistering. The weather was pretty good too, but when it came to applying calamine lotion to third degree burns, it was the grass, rather than the spectators, most in need of treatment from the St John Ambulance people. Ivanisevic to serve: bang, thud, 15-love.

The St John tent also used to be full of people being treated for Wimbledon neck, but as the ball coming back over the net now qualifies as a rally in the men's singles, the All England Club has decided to emasculate the likes of Ivanisevic by giving them balls with less oomph. However, 28 Croatian aces in three sets - several off second serves - scarcely suggests the dawn of a post-nuclear era.

Wimbledon's experiment with softer balls is, according to Ivanisevic, balls. "I'm still going to hit my 20 or 30 aces if they make us play with water balls," he said. "Wimbledon on grass is always going to be fast." If you want to see rallies, go and watch the women was his message.

First they changed from white balls to yellow in an attempt to make them easier to spot, but during last year's final between Ivanisevic and Pete Sampras, a Centre Court seat offered only marginally more chance of seeing the ball than listening in on the radio.

Ivanisevic, however, takes the view that if they want him to entertain people here, they'd be better off asking him to do a spot of pavement busking for the queues outside. "I don't care whether it's entertaining or not. At 40-love, 30-love, maybe you can entertain people, but not too much, you know."

There was a time (boring game or not) when Ivanisevic was always compulsive viewing, throwing so many verbal wobblers that tennis umpires across the world learned how to curse more fluently in Goran's tongue than a private in the Croatian army. There were also a few broken racket strings, not so much caused by service aces, as vicious double-handed backhands crunching into the barley water bottle.

On yesterday's form, though, Ivanisevic has clearly had a Bjorn Borg implant. Leaving aside the occasions he asked the ball boy to replenish his drink, the only recorded word he uttered on court came immediately after winning the match. "Yes" he said, with a clenched fist and a short sideways glance at one or two of his supporters.

Most of his supporters, given that his ranking in the sex symbol stakes is No 2 rather than the Wimbledon committee's official No 4 (Agassi is No 1 on both counts) are the sort of young girls whose great-great-grandmothers used to scream at the Bay City Rollers. What did Goran think of this? "Better younger girls than younger guys," he said.

Ivanisevic has a sharp, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, delivered with as deadpan a delivery as his expression on court. In fact, he is so deadpan that Ladbrokes are offering 11-10 against the Croat breaking into a smile (who judges these things?) for his matches on Centre Court during this Wimbledon.

"Do you ever think of smiling?" Goran was asked. Goran replied, without the hint of a smile, "They [the bookmakers] must be crazy. I smile all the time. I'm the guy who likes to joke on the court. It's a pretty stupid bet. If I am on Centre I am going to smile all the match. Whoever bets on it" (not smiling) "is going to lose."

However, while no one would have lost yesterday, Ivanisevic almost looked as though he was on laughing gas between change-overs compared to his opponent. Stark was certainly the only one of the two to complain about line calls, as he did when a thunderous Ivanisevic return (to capture his service in the first set) landed somewhere around the baseline. The umpire reacted to Stark's entreaty for an overrule with a shrug and a headshake, as if to say: "If he's going to hit them that hard, what chance have I got to see it?"

Goran, meantime, said not a word, nor made any sort of noise. Ballistic service or not, there is no grunt to go with it, and when he slipped over in mid-court to lose a point, he merely looked mildly peeved. Even when Ivanisevic made a small detour on his way off court to sign a few autographs he said nothing, although the people he signed for were also lost for words when they examined the two spidery lines bearing not the remotest resemblance to either Goran or Ivanisevic, and scribbled in less time than it takes his service to hit the backstop.

Yesterday, Ivanisevic served at least one ace in all 15 of his service games, including three in a row when he was love-40 in the third set, and two more in the tie-break. He claims that not all his aces are down to pure velocity, and that it's all in the wrist. "People think you have to go to the gym and pump weights, be like Schwarzenegger." He's right, too. At least Arnie smiles when he's firing his bullets.