Sunday, Jun 27, 2004
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By Nirmal Shekar
LONDON, JUNE 26. Sixteen years ago, on a lovely February morning at the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association stadium, as it was then called, a wild-eyed teenager was firing away with a sort of infectious abandon from the baseline, practising serves even as his colleagues were engaged in the serious business of preparing for an important Davis Cup tie.
Some of the serves, hitting the mark like guided missiles, made you wonder why the 16-year-old had not been named by his captain to play in the Davis Cup tie. But, you did not have to wait long for the answer. For, soon came the deliveries that were way off the mark.
Watching the young man with the string-bean frame from the sidelines, Vijay Amritraj, the playing captain of the Indian Davis Cup team, and this writer, looked at each other and nodded. No word was uttered; nor was there the need to say anything.
Vijay knew as much as I did on that day that the boy would go places if he kept at it. We were both sure in our minds that the young man had it in him to win a few Majors. We were both right and wrong.
The reserve player in the 1988 Yugoslav team led by Slobodan Zivojinovic, which beat India in a tie that turned out to be Vijay's last for his country, won but a solitary Major in his remarkable career. Yet, what we did not know then was how Goran Ivanisevic's mind worked. If we did, we might have discounted the possibility of the youngster becoming one of the game's all-time greats.
On Friday evening, as Ivanisevic brought up a fairytale finish to his career on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, losing for the first time in four years here he was champion in 2001 and did not play here the next two years it was hard not to look back to 1988.
Sport, democratic as it is, makes room for all kinds of people. Through all the years writing on sport, your correspondent has met a variety of athletes, from the leader of the 1980s brat-pack John McEnroe down to odd-ball cricketers, footballers and the like.
But I must admit I have not met anyone quite like Goran Ivanisevic. He is a pure one-off. Nobody can think like he does; nor can anyone say the things that he does, almost casually, normally, without a hint of mischief.
Yet, nobody as crazy as Ivanisevic is could have been quite as interesting and lovable as he turned out to be through the 15 years and more he's been on the Tour.
``Over the years you've provided us some of our best stories, biggest laughs. Now that you are going away, any suggestions what we can do,'' a reporter asked Ivanisevic at his last Wimbledon press conference.
``I think you should wait for another Goran. He is going to come. Every generation has its Goran. In future you are going to have some guy come along,'' said the Croatian. It will be good for the sport if another comes along soon but this is unlikely to happen.
No paragon in his own eyes, Ivanisevic was a flawed champion who was an indissoluble mix of strengths and weaknesses. And it is as difficult now as it was in his heyday to try and resolve the enigma of his character. It is a job that is as tough as trying to return his lethal, left-handed serve on grass.
Then again, if he possessed one of the most feared serves seen in the Open era, the fact that he was a left-hander made it all the more frustrating for his opponents, particularly on grass at Wimbledon. And Ivanisevic's touch and stroking brilliance on both flanks turned him into a formidable player when on song.
Three times he was denied in the final at Wimbledon but it took the likes of Andre Agassi (1992) and Pete Sampras (1994 and 1998) to beat him. Then came his finest hour, appropriately on the third Monday of the rain-ravaged 2001 championships.
In front of soccer-style crowds in glorious sunshine, Ivanisevic outlasted a valiant Pat Rafter in five sets and then cried and cried and cried. There were not too many dry pairs of eyes on that People's Monday.
The following two years were an uphill struggle for him and the only reason he went through the agonising routine of practice and therapy was to earn himself the chance to get back to the centre court at Wimbledon.
``Everything was perfect. Everything was right the weather, the crowd, the court,'' Ivanisevic said yesterday after losing to Hewitt. Looking back, he was lucky to have signed off on Friday. He would have hated to have called it a day on a dank, miserable day such as Saturday.
He then talked about his dream of coming back here "in suit and tie'' and having tea in the Wimbledon members' enclosure. "Probably they are going to invite me to play the 35s doubles,'' he said.
If the crowds at Wimbledon will miss a very special kind of champion, then Ivanisevic himself will miss everything about the great championship, as he clearly acknowledged. ``I am going to miss everything. I am going to miss serving an ace at 15-40, 30-40, I am going to miss talking to the umpire sometimes good, sometimes bad,'' said the Croatian.
Asked who was the toughest player he had faced in his career, Ivanisevic said, "Maybe the toughest player I ever played was Pete (Sampras) because the guy gives you only one or two chances per match. Three if he is generous.''
Not a player to harbour too many regrets, Ivanisevic, part-child (his favourite English TV programme is Teletubbies), part-rascal, part-comedian, part-ravenous competitor, did admit that his career would have been more complete if he had at some point climbed to the No. 1 spot.
``That's maybe the only thing I can regret in my career. But to be No. 2 behind Pete Sampras, for me that is the biggest honour because he is the best player in the history of tennis,'' said Ivanisevic. "And the year when I was No. 2, he won three Grand Slams. So I didn't have a chance only if I shot him which I couldn't do.''
It is this sort of candour from a man famous for his wisecracks that endeared Ivanisevic to the press and the public. He will be missed.
Tennis has its legendary born heroes (Borg, Sampras), its great anti-heroes (McEnroe) its character actors (Vitas Gerulaitis, Todd Martin) and its comedians. Ivanisevic had it in him to be a hero but played out the comedian's role for the most part before embracing heroism on that unforgettable July Monday in 2001.
Olympic Torch at Wimbledon
Earlier today, at 11 a.m. on the Centre Court, Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to run the sub-4 minute mile 50 years ago, lit the Olympic Torch, which had arrived in London at 8 a.m. by a special aircraft, and carried it to the main entrance of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, where he handed it over to Tim Henman.
After a run around the grounds in light rain, Henman, in turn, handed the torch to Virginia Wade, the last British player male or female to win the Wimbledon singles title, in 1977. Wade took it out of the Club and on to Southfields. The last time the torch was in London, which is bidding to host the 2012 Olympics, was in 1948, when this great city played host to the first post-War Games at short notice.
``It is the combination of mythology, history and the concept of athleticism that makes it so special,'' said Sir Bannister. "The Olympic movement is successful. But the administration has to fight to keep it as pure as possible.''
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