I am guessing you would have heard the name, Goran Ivanisevic by now, in case you had not heard it earlier. Thanks to Wimbledon, and its post in twitter ( link below), a flurry of memories opened floodgates for multiple people who went onto write some words about Goran. Let me start by swearing, I am not one of them as for me, Goran was merely a trivia question whose answer I remembered- Only wild card entry to win Wimbledon. It is only last week after seeing those posts on Facebook; I decided to study about Goran’s life and his humongous achievement. It is only now I could think about trying to know the man because it is only now, I can fathom the depth and magnitude of what was achieved that fateful day on 9th July, 2001.
So, let me write this piece to discern why apart from usual wildcard thing, Goran has special place among people’s hearts with a special focus on his Wimbledon career. Goran turned professional in 1988 and, later that year, with Rüdiger Haas, won his first career doubles title in Frankfurt. Although he focused mostly on his singles career, he also had some success in doubles, winning nine titles and reaching a career-high ranking of 20. He made his first significant impact on the tour in 1990, knocking Boris Becker out of the first round of the French Open men’s singles; he went on to reach the quarterfinals. At that year’s Wimbledon, Ivanisevic reached the semifinals, where he lost to Becker in four sets. Ivanisevic also won his first tour singles title in 1990 at Stuttgart and helped Yugoslavia win the World Team Cup.
Ivanisevic quickly came to be known for his strong, attacking style of play and for an extremely powerful serve. For several years, he had more aces than anyone else did on the tour. Capable of beating anyone in the world when at his very best, he was also known for occasional on-court temper tantrums—usually directed towards himself—and the volatility of the standard of his play.
In 1992, Ivanisevic came to limelight with a heartbreaking Wimbledon performance. He steamrolled his way to reach his first Wimbledon singles final, having defeated Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, and Pete Sampras in succession. His 6–7, 7–6, 6–4, 6–2 semifinal victory over Sampras was particularly impressive, with Ivanisevic serving 36 aces and not even facing a break point in the entire match. In the finals, he faced Andre Agassi, going into the finals as favorite to win; with both players attempting to win their first Grand Slam title. Agassi eventually won 6–7, 6–4, 6–4, 1–6, 6–4 in a match that was marked by typical Ivanisevic brilliance followed by characteristic loss of form. In the fifth set, Ivanisevic had a break point on Agassi’s serve at 3–3, but failed to convert it. In the final game of the match, he served 2 double faults to start the game. Ivanisevic’s ace count for the tournament (206) was the highest in Wimbledon history at the time, until he beat his own record in 2001 with 213 aces.
In 1994, Ivanisevic went onto reach Wimbledon finals once again. Entire tournament, he won all his matches in three sets except for the fourth round, which he won in four sets. The much hyped match against Boris Becker in the semis saw him decimate Becker in 3 sets winning 6-2,7-6,6-4. He met defending champion Pete Sampras in the finals in a match that was supposed to be very tough match.
The first service break came after an hour and three-quarters, and Goran Ivanisevic promptly collapsed, in common with a number of startled spectators. Goran had lost his spirit and could see little point in prolonging the duel with Pete Sampras, the concluding set vanishing in 20 minutes to leave with an unusual score: 7-6, 7-6, and 6-0. Last time a Wimbledon men’s singles final ended with a 6-0 set was in 1936, Fred Perry’s parting shot before turning professional and leaving a large hole in the British game.
Ivanisevic’s frustration and disappointment was understandable. Two years ago, the Croat’s manager, Ion Tiriac had suggested that Agassi should be employed by Nasa, as he had defied the laws of ballistics. Yesterday, he revised his opinion. ‘I think Goran lost the final two years ago,’ he said, ‘but he was beaten today.’
In 1995 Wimbledon, Ivanisevic lost in the semifinals to Sampras 6–7, 6–4, 3–6, 6–4, 3–6. Considered as the best of classics between them, Ivanisevic would win the second set with a delightful efficiency and marauding attacks. However, once again in trademark style, instead of putting pressure on his opponent, he handed Sampras a break in the very first game of the third set with a double fault and several silly mistakes at the net. In an identical style to second set, he would come back throwing all punches winning fourth set 6-4. In fifth set, Ivanisevic would start his serve with a double fault and rest is history. Ivanisevic once again fell short to ‘perfect’ Pete.
In 1996, Ivanisevic would reach semi-finals of US Open by defeating Stefan Edberg in last grand slam match of Stefan’s career. This was his first major semis outside Wimbledon only to be defeated by Sampras again in four sets. Ironically, Sampras’ match with Michael Chang in US Open Finals will be the first tennis match I still remember to have seen. I will be supporting (a fake Asian) Chang only to see the prowess of Sampras and falling in love with Tennis.
In 1998, the duo would meet again. Sampras, already the custodian of four Wimbledon trophies, was now a single victory from equaling Bjorn Borg’s record five titles as well as tying Borg and Rod Laver with 11 Grand Slam singles crowns over all. Ivanisevic, not known as a mental marathoner, refused to quit and would wound up breaking the spirit of Krajicek, Wimbledon’s 1996 champion, in a 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-7 (5-7), 15-13 semis potboiler. ”I know how to play in the finals, I have been there, and I know I just have to keep up with him, keep up and not let my mind go”, said Ivanisevic. He insisted he has armed himself with an infusion of self-control and his usual arsenal of aces. It will be enough he felt to invalidate his reputation as the most talented man never to collect a title in a Grand Slam event.
In a tense final, Goran would win the first and would gain two set points for the second only to see Pete win it back. In a season of inconsistent form, Pete would win the final 6-7 (2-7), 7-6 (11-9), 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. Pete would concede the slightest of difference he had from Goran in terms of performance and yet, for the third straight finals, Pete would defeat Goran and his newfound mental strength. Ivanisevic would lament his lack of killer instinct in semis, as his legs would finally give up in fifth set.
The next three years showed the effect of what finals did to Goran as injuries and lack of confidence and form saw his ranking slump to 125 by 2001. It is here I would pause and would like to focus on why I am writing about Goran. I am not even going to write about his 2001 triumph. I am going to focus on Goran, the person I think I can vaguely understand now.
To have dreams and ambitions is not an easy thing in life. More often than not, you would see it crushed, throwing away your hours of hard work, sweat and relentless efforts. Your achievements would count only if you win that single elusive final as you slug it out day after day with like-minded people with like-minded dreams with like-minded pressure to deliver. It is in these times, when you lose, you lose yourself.
After 1998 final, Pete said ”I feel bad for Goran, I have lost a couple of Grand Slam finals, and it’s the toughest defeat in tennis.” Pete knows what he is talking because even after you have won multiple finals, that one loss would throw you off into wilderness. Recently, we saw Federer struggle after a decade of dominance as he would lose it to Nadal or Djokovic again and again, losing not only to them but to himself.
Goran had followed Pete with these words, “Today was very close, a lot of everything, it was interesting, but now it’s the worst moment of my life. You know, I’ve had some bad moments, when you are sick or when somebody dies, but for me this is the worst thing ever, because nobody’s died yet” But Goran knew the truth, something did die within him as he would lose it for next three years trying to recover.
I can only imagine what a person considered then the most talented youngster to come up in tennis scene would feel after a decade of failures. He won around 20 titles but no Grand Slams and he knew he was good having defeated everyone known in the circuit and yet somehow, it was not good enough.
“After that match things started going downhill. I couldn’t get over it.” In 2000, Goran lost in the first round of the French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open.
In 2000, Samsung Open, everyone could see how affected Goran was when he had to retire from 2nd round, because he destroyed all his three rackets while playing. His coach asked him to play with one of his doubles partner, but his frustration with himself, his anger just will not allow it.
In moments like these, I feel all we can do is look within and look hard. In moments like these, we do not lose to opponents anymore, we lose to oneself. A number of times I have heard and seen, people when depressed, they depend on their close ones to overcome depression. It is not easy for sure to be able to overlook the huge sadness in your life, to be able to accept your failures and to tell yourself, it is ok and to keep trying. Somehow, I feel it is within us that we eventually find the answers. Even in cases, where we reach for help, it is we who decide that we need help, whom to reach out to and these decisions go far in solving our crisis. Goran I imagined would have finally gone past the pain and disappointments and looked at a plan to solve his crisis. My own experience tells it wont be just a plan, it would be hundreds of plans every single day with each plan resulting in failure. So while we see just 3-4 failures, we would have a number of minute failures each building a sense of frustration, desperation within us and adding to the next minute failure. It is this endless cycle, which keeps us bounded in our thoughts as we often lose sight of our goals.
It is funny that Goran who was ranked 136 would lose the first round of Australian Open, 2001 months before Wimbledon. In his own words, when he had to go and search for the court where he had to play Petr Luxa, someone who never won any Grand Slam main draw match, he realized how far he had fallen. He lost that match.
In Wimbledon, his coach asked him to watch Teletubbies, a kids cartoon series saying it is too funny to miss. I am guessing he did this to give Goran some outlet to laugh, smile, ease his concerns or divert his thoughts. Goran took to it like fish to water and watched it throughout the slam.
As I have read articles, watched videos of Goran, his matches across 2 decades of his playing career, it felt sad to see him win just one Grand Slam. His play had the dominance seldom seen in tennis and his brilliance had me in smiles many times. To just say, Sports is cruel will not be enough as for every story of Goran’s loss scripted one of Pete’s win. Every quality he missed was surprisingly ready made with Pete as Pete went on to write his name somewhat effortlessly as one of the legends in the game. However, to pick oneself up and walk the way Goran did, I can understand why many of us want to applaud this achievement.
Goran did something unhuman just to show humane side of his. A 3-time finals loser, he battled country favorite, Tim Henman in the semis as a he took any luck he got this time to win that battle. Even against Rafter, at one point of time, with game points in his kitty, Goran would double fault once again to remind us his weaknesses. Yet, Goran recalled emotionally, “I told myself just put it there for him to play, let it play on its own”. Therefore, the legend was born with a shot which was a mixture of nervousness, an ordinary serve and Pat’s unforced error but more importantly by Goran’s ability to finally win over his demons. As an adult, I not only understand the nature of the win but I understand the difficultly level as well. Goran made it impossible for himself to win that final, like we all do with some dreams of ours and yet it makes me smile to see him achieve it as he makes me feel slightly better about the chances of achieving mine. To everyone else reading this blog, I hope the story of Goran does the same to you.
P.S. – I have provided most of links I have used for reference. I wish I could put all.