Part two of our ‘Love All’ series looks at the career and life of Croatian big-hitter Goran Ivanisević, the only player to have won the Wimbledon men’s championship as a wildcard, and as Tomasz Lorek writes, a larger-than-life character both on and off the court.
Can you imagine a fabulous tennis player negotiating with a god to make his career a little bit longer?
Or watching Teletubbies on the day of a Wimbledon men’s singles final? Yes, even the sophisticated tennis society needs a charismatic character.
The man from Split in Dalmatia, where hearts are bigger than the Sun as locals used to say, Goran Ivanisević fits this pattern perfectly.
An incredibly talented athlete (22 singles titles, 9 in doubles). A medalist both in singles & doubles (with Goran Prpić) during 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. 1996 Hopman Cup winner with Iva Majoli (1997 French Open women’s singles champion). Goran is also 2005 Davis Cup winner with Croatia, although he didn’t play in a final tie against Slovakia. His presence on a bench next to Niki Pilić was a mental boost for in-form duo: Mario Ancić (called Baby Goran) and Ivan Ljubicić.
Phenomenal motion while serving. Four Wimbledon finals. Each of these finals had a bit of drama with the great Croat not afraid to be like an active Ojos del Salado, the highest Chilean volcano. “The trouble with me is that every match I play against five opponents: umpire, crowd, ball boys, court and myself” – that’s typical Goran’s state of mind.
Ivanisević started his love affair with SW19 in 1988 when he lost a first round encounter to righty Israeli Amos Mansdorf in four sets. In the same year Goran finished as number 3 in the world junior rankings. Six years later Amos had no weapons at all, losing to Goran in straight sets in a third round match at Wimbledon. The holy grass was the most precious temple to Ivanisević since he had fallen in love with tennis and that’s why he tried so hard to win it.
To become the king of the most prestigious Grand Slam tournament, ranked 125 on the planet, is a very unique achievement. Goran still can’t believe the way he lost his debut Wimbledon final against Andre Agassi. It sounds crazy considering how many world class players Goran has beaten on the way to the final against the flamboyant American: Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras. In the fifth set Goran had a break point on Andre’s serve at 3-3, but failed to convert it. It’s unthinkable, but Goran served 37 aces in the 1992 Wimbledon final against Agassi, while Andre had 34 aces in the entire tournament!
“If all the Gorans are quiet and they want to play, I’m a very tough player to beat, because nobody expects what I’m going to do next,” Goran said after he fulfilled his dream in the 2001 Wimbledon final when he has beaten his great friend from Mount Isa in Australia, an incredible serve and volley specialist, Pat Rafter.
Quite possibly the toughest obstacle on the way to a beloved grass court summit was a semifinal clash against one of the greatest chip and chargers: Tim Henman.
A man who lost a five-set marathon to Ivanisević in a match that was played over three days … Henman led the Croat 2-1 in sets and was 5-all in fourth set tie-break, when rain came into play. Tim lost the next two points and fell 3-6 in a fifth set. It was a lottery and Goran held the winning ticket. “When I served for the match I was so tight that my arm felt like 10 kilos. I felt sorry for Tim because of all the pressure he has been put through, but this was destiny. God wanted me to win. He sent the rain on Friday,” Goran commented.
The Brit replied in the best possible way. “I have to give Goran credit for the way he played. It was a tough match, but he was the one that came out on top. A wildcard is something that Goran definitely deserved with his record here and his previous sort of troubles in last 18 months. If it was my decision, I certainly would have given him one.”
But soon after Ivanisević won the battle with Henman, he had to face another opponent … John McEnroe said during TV commentary that Goran has only one shot. So, Goran made it clear that he was not happy about the three times Wimbledon champion’s opinion.
“John McEnroe was my idol. All my life. He was the player I always like to watch. Great emotions on the court. But as a person, I don’t think too much about him as a person. Not only to say, okay, I have one shot. That makes me genius or that makes the other guy so bad, because to have one shot and be in the final of Wimbledon four times, win 21 tournaments, some of them on clay, you have to be genius to win with the one shot. The way he’s commentating, giving everybody the shits.
” ‘This guy is bad. This guy is going to choke. This guy is not good.’ I mean, nobody is good for him. So, I mean, what to say for Mr. McEnroe? He is a great player, but as a person, I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about him. He’s him. Who cares about him? Anyway, he’s going to say bullshit about me and about everybody else. Let it be.” Goran’s response was not a feeble serve, it was a powerful return.
Typically for the Croat, he has changed mood within a split second. Asked by a reporter whether he slept much during those three days against Henman, Goran replied: “Not really. I slept badly. Today, yes. Last night I actually slept well. The day before, I slept not very well. I was waking up, every two hours thinking, maybe the clock is not going to go, not going to wake me up. I was watching all the time what was the time, 6:00, okay. Go back to sleep, 7:00, go back to sleep. I was happy when I woke up. 9:30, I said, “OK, it’s enough, get up. Teletubbies starts at 10:00, so you have to watch.”
As with most people born in the former Yugoslavia, Goran loves basketball. No wonder he is a big fan of “kosarka” – that’s what basketball is called in Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Macedonia.
He dedicated his 2001 Wimbledon victory to his close friend Drazen Petrović, who died in a car accident in 1993. Drazen was a big star, not only in Croatia (Cibona Zagreb) or in Spain (Real Madrid), but also in the US where he played for NBA teams Portland Trail Blazers and New Jersey Nets. Even today, when Goran speaks about Drazen, he becomes speechless. “I just can’t believe Drazen is dead. I still talk with good friends of his who live here. I mean, we just talking about him like he is alive. You can’t believe it. But it is life. That is destiny. I can’t do anything,” Goran said to reporters while playing at 1993 US Open.
Ivanisević had won the US Open boys doubles competition in 1987 (with Italian Diego Nargiso), but for some reason, the New York hard courts weren’t a favourite hunting ground for him. His best efforts at Flushing Meadows among 13 attempts was a semifinal in 1996 when he lost to Pete Sampras in four sets.
During the 1992 US Open, Ivanisević lost a third round encounter to Russian Alexander Volkov: 4-6, 0-6, 3-6. He explained: “My legs felt very heavy. I couldn’t run. I was serving badly because my arms were so heavy. Since I came here to America, I feel very bad and very sick. Maybe it’s some kind of virus. There must be something wrong because I am waking up like crazy every five times. Usually when I go to sleep, I sleep all day if I want. Now I can’t sleep. In the morning I can’t eat, so you can’t play then, because something is wrong. Everyday I have cramp in the stomach. Here food is not good. If you eat those MacDonald cheeseburgers, hamburgers you go to the hospital forever.” Goran isn’t a big fan of fast food.
When he won the Wimbledon title, you need to celebrate properly! The community of Split showed a phenomenal response when their beloved son landed on July 10, 2001 at Zracna luka airport. The newly crowned Wimbledon champion wore a New Jersey Nets basketball vest in memory of his late friend Petrović.
Goran was greeted by nearly 200,000 fans in his hometown of Split. He felt like a rock star. Supporters were sitting on roofs of their houses celebrating an arrival of a fantastic tennis player. Pure joy… People travelling by boats, waving to Goran. Men climbed to the top of road signs, women were dancing in the streets.
Usually, a defending Grand Slam champion is able to compete in the next year’s tournament. But it’s not always the case. Goran saw his 2002 season cut short after undergoing left shoulder surgery in Germany. The 2001 Wimbledon winner became the first defending champion not to return due to illness/injury since Frenchman Rene Lacoste, who missed the 1926 Wimbledon due to a chest ailment.
Despite injuries, Ivanisević was lucky enough to say farewell to Wimbledon’s grass courts in 2004. His last official match played at SW19 was an encounter against an Aussie – 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt. A defeat in straight sets: 2-6, 3-6, 4-6. 25th of June 2004.
“It was strange. I knew it was my last match, last point, but it was a victory for me. To come here, to lose to the guy who is the Wimbledon champion, who is a great player. He played too good. I didn’t do anything wrong. Everything was perfect: the weather, the crowd, the court. I enjoyed myself. I’m happy and sad. I’m sad that I have to leave, but I’m happy that it’s no more practicing, no more questions from you guys (reporters). But it was really great.
“I have really enjoyed every moment of my career. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m saying. I always say what I mean in that moment. I said a lot of stupid things in my career that cost me.
“But, that’s me. That’s why a lot of people like me. A lot of people didn’t like me. But I stay the same. Nothing will change me. Even when I won Wimbledon, I stay the same. I was same before, and probably when I’ll be 50, I’m going to be same. It’s me. I like myself. I’m going to miss everything.
“I’m going to miss the guys that I spent so many years with them. I’m going to miss serving ace on 15-40, 30-40. I’m going to miss talking to the umpire – sometimes bad, sometimes good… I gave all my life into this sport.”
The beauty of Ivanisević relies on being extremely natural, explosive, spontaneous, hilarious and philosophical at the same time.
“My mind is like an orchestra. If you don’t have the conductor, you don’t know what to do. One guy is playing jazz, one guy is playing rock & roll, another classical. It’s a big mess.”
18 years after that memorable Wimbledon final against Rafter, on July 17, 2019, Goran played an exhibition match in Umag on a clay court in Croatia. It was a rematch of that 2001 final. “It’s a dream come true,” he said. “A big thank you to Patrick who is coming all the way from Australia for this match. Thanks to Umag and all the people who made it possible.”
Ivanisević won the rematch in straight sets 6-4, 6-4. and the fans loved every minute of the encounter. A rally at 4-4, 15-0 for Rafter in the second set was extraordinary. But that night the real winner was a strong friendship bond between an Aussie and a famous Croat.
When Goran started to work with Marin Cilić in 2013, plenty of people were visiting his Umag tennis academy to learn a few tricks from him. While holidaymakers were basking in the sunshine and enjoying water-skiing, tennis fans were happy to be coached by Goran. The Katoro resort is situated not far from the beautiful Croatian coastline.
Marin Cilić was born in Medjugorje in Bosnia & Herzegovina, but opted to play for Croatia. Cilić knew how to use Goran’s wisdom and experience. In 2014, he won the US Open final, beating Japan’s Kei Nishikori in straight sets. For Goran it was a nerve wracking moment to watch him play at the Arthur Ashe Stadium from the player’s box.
“It’s easier when you play. You get your emotions out. You scream. You yell. You do whatever you want. You play. But it’s so tough to sit.”
On January 28 this year in Melbourne Ivanisević spoke to the tennis media about his induction into the International Hall of Fame. “A month or so ago Todd Martin called me to say that I was in. I’ll be the 258th and Conchita Martinez will be the 259th International Tennis Hall of Famer. I was speechless. I didn’t know what to say. It’s probably the biggest and greatest honour for any sportsman,” Goran said.
But now, as a coach, what hat goes through Goran’s mind when he is a part of Novak Djoković’s team?
“My challenge as a coach is to stay in the team and help him be the best player in the history of tennis. The last nine years he’s by far, by statistics, in every part: Grand Slams, winning matches, Masters 1000, he’s by far the best.”
With 10,131 aces throughout his career, it’s obvious that Ivanisević was one of the world’s greatest ever servers. In 1996 he served 1477 aces, but even the Croatian giant had a bad day at the office. In New Delhi in 1995 in his Davis Cup singles match against India’s Leander Paes, Goran made 25 double faults.
Goran practiced with the Hajduk Split soccer team during the 1997 off-season and was offered a place on the team for a match, but declined. “I had two dreams in my life. One was to win Wimbledon. The other was to play once for Hajduk Split,” he said.
During summer of 2001, his wish was set to be granted as the soccer club started talks involving a short-term contract and the promise to play at least two minutes of football for his side. This was by no gimmick and although there are no reports that Ivanisević was ever torn between two professional paths, the club’s coach Nenad Gracan confirmed at the time that the tennis star’s ability was very close to professional level.
Back in 2002, while Goran was in Zagreb recovering from shoulder surgery, he got a call from his good mate, Zvonimir Boban. The former AC Milan midfielder invited Ivanisević for a coffee near the tennis courts in the Zagreb suburb of Maksimir.
The invite was two-fold, one – to catch up with his pal, the other was he wanted him to take a look at two teenage boys whom he thought were extremely talented. Goran went and took a look, and like Boban, who is a keen tennis fan and enjoys the odd hit with Ivanisević, was impressed with the teens. One of them was Marin Čilić.
Ivanisević and Boban were to invest in the youngster. “Boban and Goran were meant to invest in the project, but Goran’s obligations meant he could not, so he arranged that Marin would go to coach Bob Brett,” Marin’s father, Zdenko said. Over a decade later Ivanisević finally had the opportunity to coach the boy he first saw practicing on the Zagreb courts. Goran was not holding back his emotions either after Čilić’s amazing win in New York in 2014.
On October 7, 2002 in Zagreb, Boban organised and played in a farewell testimonial with Croatia’s 1998 World Cup team supported by Ivanisević. The bronze medalists from the 1998 World Cup played against a Rest of the World team featuring Rivaldo, Marco Van Basten and Lothar Matthaus. Goran scored a goal.
Ivanisević then appeared on a Croatian reality TV show in which he exchanged jobs with a street cleaner. He had to get up at 4 am to sweep the roads in Zagreb. Afterwards, Goran said it was the hardest work of his life.
Goran believes that, if he had failed to win Wimbledon at the fourth attempt in 2001, he might have killed himself, or ‘gone to live in Alaska forever’. Thank God, he won. We don’t need to travel to Alaska to see him!
Tomasz Lorek (Polsat Sport TV)