ThrowbackTimes Wimbledon: Goran Ivanisevic writes the most beautiful tennis story

“Equipped” with two shirts and three racquets, a former three-time finalist Goran Ivanisevic traveled to what could have been his final Wimbledon in 2001, ranked 125th and almost forgotten! The Croat had a few rough years behind him, struggling to find the form and motivation and battling with a severe left shoulder injury, with everything starting after that 1998 Wimbledon final defeat to Pete Sampras in five sets. Before this tournament, Goran had failed to reach an ATP semi-final since Basel 1999, opening the 2001 season with a Challenger in Heilbronn and playing at that level for the first time since 1991! In those days, Ivanisevic could have lost to anybody. He proved that at Queen’s, where world no. 194 Cristiano Caratti defeated him 6-3, 6-4, a player with three ATP wins on grass in an entire career! Despite all that, the organizers decided to give Goran a wild card for Wimbledon, and Goran turned it into one of the most colorful tennis stories ever after becoming the lowest-ranked champion at the world’s most prestigious event.

In the final, on July 9, in what was known as “People’s Monday,” Goran prevailed over Patrick Rafter 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7 in three hours and two minutes to complete his fantastic journey and finally win a Major title on the court where he suffered three heartbreaking losses between 1992-1998. Goran became the first player with a wild card who went all the way and the third unseeded one after Boris Becker in 1985 and Richard Krajicek in 1996. It was one of the biggest stories in the sport at that time, and the crowd of 150,000 devoted fans welcomed him in the hometown of Split. Goran opened his historic campaign on court 13 against the Swedish qualifier Fredrik Jonsson, beating him 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 for the first Major victory since the Australian Open 2000! He scored one break in each set to book a place in the second round, saying that he should have been on the operating table instead of the court, still eager to give his best.

In round two, Ivanisevic ousted Carlos Moya 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, firing 34 aces and saving three out of four break points to reach the last 32, winning two Major matches for the first time since the 1999 US Open. The third round brought a tough encounter against the American bomber Andy Roddick, who made Wimbledon debut that year. Ivanisevic hit 42 aces and faced only three break chances to grab the spot in the fourth round, playing like in his best days and dropping five points on serve in the first two sets! In the encounter’s last game, Andy had a break point that could have brought him back to the scoreboard, but Goran took a small break and fired three aces to seal the deal. Greg Rusedski fell 7-6, 6-4, 6-4 in under 90 minutes in the last 16, as they lost just nine points on the first serve in total! The Croat didn’t have to play against break points, stealing Greg’s serve once in sets two and three for a place in the seventh Wimbledon quarter-final, where nobody expected him!

In 2001, Goran Ivanisevic claimed the Wimbledon crown ranked 125th.

Things were becoming serious, and Ivanisevic started to believe this could be his year after beating the young Russian Marat Safin 7-6, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 in two hours and 27 minutes to enter the last four. Both players claimed one break of serve, and the more experienced Croat won both tie breaks to seal the match and book a clash with the local favorite Tim Henman. That turned to be one of the best Wimbledon semi-final encounters ever, with Goran overpowering Tim 7-5, 6-7, 0-6, 7-6, 6-3 in just over three hours and three days of action, as the rain went on to interrupt the action on several occasions, which pretty much saved Ivanisevic! There were only five breaks in the entire match (three in the third set alone), and Henman had more chances. He finished the clash with ten points more on his tally but failed to cross the finish line when he had the opportunity. Goran won the opening set with three return winners at 6-5 that gave him a precious break.

He was the better player in set number two but lost it 8-6 in the tie break despite being a mini-break up twice, losing the focus and dropping the third set 6-0 in no time. The rain halted the match on Friday evening, and that was just what Ivanisevic needed to regain the composure. He saved a break point in the eighth game of the fourth set and trailed 3-1 in the tie break before taking it 7-5 thanks to a great return under Henman’s feet to force the deciding set and gain a massive boost. They couldn’t finish the job on Saturday and returned on Sunday, when Goran made a crucial break at 4-3 to forge the advantage and serve out for the win in the next game, advancing to his fourth Wimbledon final. Patrick Rafter stood between Goran and that elusive trophy in what would be the last Wimbledon for the Aussie who retired at the end of that season. He was the favorite after returning to the top-10 in March and playing in the final 12 months earlier.

For the first time in Wimbledon history, the final started on the third Monday, and it turned out to be an extraordinary one, with true tennis fans cheering and chanting from start to finish (10,000 tickets went on sale two and a half hours before the match). They had all the reasons to do so as the encounter developed into an unprecedented clash between two players who desperately wanted to get their hands on that trophy, knowing it’s the last chance. It was the most extended fifth set in the Wimbledon finals at that time, and it was Goran who managed to pass all the obstacles and fulfill his dream that had been living since 1988 when he played Wimbledon for the first time at 16. Ivanisevic won just three points more than Rafter, in another indicator of how close they were all the time, with three breaks from six chances on each side. Goran blasted 74 service winners out of 111 total points won on serve and had 15 double faults, three in the encounter’s final game!

They clocked 90 winners from the field and under 40 unforced errors, an excellent ratio considering how essential the match was, with brave and attacking tennis that dropped 87% of the exchanges into an area of the shortest rallies up to four strokes! Ivanisevic made a perfect start and placed a return winner to break Rafter in the second game, enough to bring him the opener as he served without any troubles. The Croat struggled to find his first serve in the second set (13 out of 29) and got broken in the second game after three double faults and Rafter’s two winners. The Aussie won the set with four service winners in game nine to level the score, offering Goran only three points on serve and hoping for more of the same in sets three and four. The third set followed a similar pattern, and this time Rafter couldn’t find the first serve, suffering a break in game six thanks to Goran’s two return winners. The Croat served well in the entire set to get in front once again, moving a set away from the triumph.

Patrick was not to be denied, though, starting all over in set number four and giving away only six points behind the initial shot to mount the pressure on Goran. From 2-2, Rafter won four straight games to claim the set 6-2 and gather all the momentum before the final set, the most important in a career of both. Games went by, and servers were standing strong, with only two deuces in the first 13 games and no break chances! At 6-7, Goran returned from 0-30 to hold with two service winners before breaking his rival at 15 a few minutes later thanks to two return winners. Patrick pulled in only one first serve and paid the price, trailing 8-7 and leaving Goran to serve for the title.

The entire life of Goran Ivanisevic, his dreams and hopes gathered in that 16th game, standing four points away from the holy grail of our sport. He hit a double fault to find himself 15-30 down, but two service winners gave him the first match point. It came and gone following another double fault, with another service winner and a double fault bringing them back to deuce, making Goran more and more frustrated. Rafter saved the third match point with a magnificent backhand lob. However, that was all he could do, as Goran closed the match on the fourth chance, hitting his trademark service winner on the second serve to become the Wimbledon champion, releasing all the emotions he had been holding inside for such a long time.