A colourful, yet complex character, Goran Ivanisevic is arguably one of the great tennis personalities in the sterile climate of the game. It could be said that he brings not only his talent, but also a great deal more than just technically great tennis to our courts.
His Early Days
Goran was born on 13 September, 1971, the son of a professor of engineering (his father Srjdan) and a chemical engineer (his mother Gorana, after whom he is named). He grew up in the coastal city of Split, then part of what was Yugoslavia, now known as Croatia. He was an athletic lad, winning the city's cross-country championship five times and also excelling at sport in school. At the age of seven, he started playing tennis, and it became evident then that he could have quite a promising career in the game.
In 1987, at the age of 17 he turned professional, and at that time, ranked 954th in the world. His impressive left-handed serve and aggressive style of play saw him then rise to a ranking of 351 in 1988, 40 in 1989 and nine in 1990. He probably enjoyed his best season in that year, reaching five singles finals, the semi-final at Wimbledon and three doubles finals; one of which was at the French Open. He reached a personal best of second in the world in 1992.
It was also at this time that his older sister, Srjdana, was diagnosed with cancer. The family, having little money to pay for the treatment then relied on Goran's successes in tennis tournaments as a source of income. This gave him the initial motivation to play good, aggressive tennis.
From this brief history of his early career, you could say that he was on his way to winning many Grand Slam titles, and yet until 2001, he was known as 'the best tennis player in the world who has never won a Grand Slam title'. So what happened in the meantime? It may be something to do with his 'multiple personality'.
The 'Three Gorans' Theory
This was a theory that he put forward in an interview about not the one, but the three people that he brings with him to every match.
Ice-cool as the legendary Bjorn Borg and just as talented, this is the deadly unplayable Goran. His serve is as fast as it is pinpoint accurate, and his returns are so sharp that you could cut into a rock-face with them. This Goran is devastatingly charming as well as being undeniably sweet. He watches the Teletubbies to calm his nerves and is not afraid to admit it. Also, in a match versus Mark Philipoussis, he turned to a ball-girl behind him, got on his knees and implored her to save him from receiving the thunderbolts that Mark was sending down. The sight of a 6'4 man humbly begging to a girl a whole foot-and-a-half shorter was an unforgettably sweet moment. Quite the opposite of Bad Goran.
First it was Jimmy Connors. Then John 'The Brat' McEnroe. Now Bad Goran can join them in the black-book of the umpire. This Goran does all the following and more:
- Insults line staff
- Screams profanities at everyone
- Screams at the umpire
- Smashes his racquet
- Kicks the net and so on
These events can occur all at once, or spread throughout a match in any order. When the going gets really bad, so does Goran. Unfortunately, he may have been Good Goran to this point, only to lose the whole match to a rash moment of insanity. This is his main flaw, and paradoxically, also his main attraction. Crowds around the world love to see him lose his cool, and when he does, he does so in spectacular style.
Finally, when his back is really up against the wall, and there is a psychologically important point that he needs to win, Emergency Goran makes an entrance. A great example of this is in the semi-final of Wimbledon 2001 versus Tim Henman on an especially greasy Centre Court. Tim plays a good volley which Goran runs for and looks as if he might make an even better return. However, he slips, falling to his knees. The ball bounces, and the crowd as well as Henman thinks that Goran has lost the point. Only Emergency Goran kicks in, and he plays a vicious passing shot from his knees, winning the point. Neither the crowd nor Henman expects that, and after Bad Goran kicking in and losing a set 6-Love and several rain delays; Goran wins the match.
The Goran Mystery
Combine this split personality with a fierce determination to win, a purity of spirit rarely seen among sportspersons, stripped-to-the-waist posturing after matches, patriotism and a fierce loyalty to his family; you come up with an unpredictable three-dimensional character who the crowd will always love.
However, the inconsistency of composure that has haunted his play doesn't fully explain why was he so close, yet always so far away from winning a Grand Slam title. For the answer to this we have to look into the past decade of his tempestuous tennis career. It does concentrate mainly on Wimbledon, as the British public has always enjoyed his volatile matches, his game prospers on grass, and as he himself admits, it is the only Grand Slam title he has ever really desired.
A Promising Start
His race for the Wimbledon men's singles title began in 1989, when he went out in the first round. He did a little better in 1990, when he reached the semi-finals, only to be sent out by Boris Becker. Come 1992, after dispatching Pete 'Pistol' Sampras in the semis, he reached the final to face the 'phoenix-from-the-flames' Andre Agassi.
Despite Agassi being more of a clay-courter and the theory that he might be disadvantaged by the grass courts, it had been a particularly unusual hot and dry second week. This had rendered the normally fast/low bouncing grass court to a more clayish nature, favouring Agassi's gameplay. Agassi's choice of this moment to remind the world just how good his returns are, as well as the less favourable clayish conditions was enough for Goran to lose the match. Though it wasn't without a fight, as it ran to the full five sets.
Rise and Fall
The Wimbledon Tournaments of 1996 and 1998 were played out when the Balkans Conflict was at its worst. Goran was now representing the newly-born country of Croatia, and not only that, he felt that was also representing his beleaguered people. Again, he was highly motivated. Despite being pasted in the final of 1996 by Pete Sampras (Goran went out in straight sets), he returned in 1998 with a fresh determination to win the title. Again he reached the final, and again, he was to meet Sampras. Winning the first set, Goran was to serve for set point in the second. However, his concentration left him at that crucial moment. Sampras, you could say, resumed normal service. After a tight five sets, Goran couldn't take the pace, received his third plate, and also received a severe psychological blow to his tennis mind. From here, he descended into his own personal hell.
Goran then went into a downwards spiral, not only tennis-wise, but also in his motivation. His sister had since recovered, and Croatia, barely a decade old, was finally at peace. In his mind, there was nobody left to play for, not even himself, of whom he has admitted he doesn't like that much.
Defeat after defeat then followed; then a devastating injury to his left shoulder, which he was told, would require surgery; thus denying the man of the serve for which he is most feared. As much a part of himself as it is a large part of his tennis arsenal, it was an ill-timed kick in the stomach to a player who was already down. After an embarrassing first round exit in the US Open in 2000, he faced an unusually sympathetic media; so sympathetic in fact, they were attempting to cheer him up. He confessed that couldn't even bring out the more volatile aspects of his game for the spectators; Bad Goran had ceased to be. This didn't stop him from an almost unbelievable and now legendary bout of racquet-smashing, which is really worth a mention in itself.
It was in the second round against Hyung-Taik Lee of Korea in the Samsung Open (formerly Eastbourne) 2000, that Bad Goran made a brief, yet violent re-appearance. He smashed up not just one, but three of his racquets, and then realising that he had only brought three racquets to the match, he had to resign the match and default from the tournament. It seemed like an apt, yet cruel euphemism to his tennis career; he was all smashed out with nothing left but the long walk to the locker room.
Castrated of motivation and arguably, his main weapon, he quickly fell down the rankings. No longer able to qualify automatically into Grand Slam draws, he had to go through the rigors of the qualifying rounds. Despite this, it seemed that his love for the game continued unabated. He still flew halfway around the world to be knocked out in the first round of the qualifiers at the Australian Open in early 2001. Then it seemed, further conformation that he was out for the count came as he exited the Stella Artois (formerly Queen's) Championships 2001 in the first round. Not even Emergency Goran, it seemed, could save him from this unforgiving freefall.
Wimbledon 2001 - Where the Wild Things Are
Yet there was one last tournament still to come. The All-England Club have always enjoyed the hot-headed Croatian's entertaining matches, and remembering his past successes, offered him a wild-card into Wimbledon 2001, enabling him to by-pass the indignity of the qualifiers. By this time, his world ranking had sunk to its lowest since 1989; when he started this tournament, he was ranked 125 in the world. Not that anyone really thought that he would get that far; he was there purely for show. Defying logic, and to cut a long story short, the welcome return of the killer serve* and his unrelenting determination to win the only Grand Slam title he ever really wanted finally came to fruition, and Goran, after coming second three times in the past, became the first wild-card entrant to win Wimbledon.
After 13 years of wrestling with the personal demons that have dogged his life, he managed to turn his exit from despair into a moving moment of pure joy. He also managed to do it in his own, indomitable way; by simultaneously silencing his critics, turning convention on its head and yet still have one moment of madness which cost him the fourth set, but unbelievably, not his concentration.
The Times summed it up quite nicely:
Surely the Championship has never gone to a man who wanted it more fiercely or received it more joyously.
- Simon Barnes, The Times Sports Correspondent
The Last Words
Finally, after all the trouble and strife he has managed to endure, journalists especially love the guy for his fantastic interviews and the comments that others have passed on his eventful tennis career. Here are just a few examples:
On Reaching an All-time Low...
I don't have fun anymore. No fun to play, no fun to be here, no fun to practise. I cannot even break my racket, you know, make show for the people.
- Mourning the loss of his exhibitionism; US Open 2000
Lowest point was the Australian Open. I fly 24 hours to stay there and tank the first round of quallies [qualifiers], then go back after three days flying again 24 hours. That's painful. That's God's punishment: 'You going to fly there, go back.' That was killing me. Those things you shouldn't do. It was really a low, low point, humiliation. I heard people saying, 'Why is he doing that?' I don't know why I did that.
- When asked what the lowest point in his tennis life was; Wimbledon 2001
On Rising from the Ashes...
When I start in my career, my sister was very sick. I play for her because we didn't have money. So better I do, she can go to doctors and heal herself. Now everything is fine and she's great.
Then the war came. Then I have motivation to play for my country, for the people who are fighting for my country. Then that was over also.
Then I just find myself, 'What to do now?' I was finding to play for somebody, but I couldn't. Then I say, 'Man, after 12 years on the tour, I think you deserve to play for yourself a little bit, give yourself a little bit, you know, for all this hard work you did.' So now it's paying off.
- On the new-found motivation; Wimbledon 2001
On the Final...
This is just - this is what I was waiting all my life. Finally, you know, I was always second. The people respect me, but second place, you know, is not good enough. And finally I am a champion of Wimbledon. I won.
- Finally exorcising the demons; Wimbledon 2001
First of all, that game, I was 30-Love up. I play some stupid shots. I make myself in trouble. Then first foot fault. Hit great serve. He [Pat Rafter] missed it. First foot fault all tournament. That ugly, ugly lady [the lineswoman], she was really ugly, very serious, you know. I was like kind of scared.
Then I hit another second serve, huge. And that ball was on the line, was not even close... just, you know, in two seconds, I won point twice and I'm down 4-2. Then I got little crazy, you know.
- His interpretation of 'The Incident'; Wimbledon 2001
No, no, I watch it this morning. Can't miss it. Five minutes this morning, and everything was under control.
- Even with the early start to the Final, Goran still has time for the Teletubbies; Wimbledon 2001
On the Current State of the Game...
But the tennis, at the moment, a lot of guys, they playing like machines, this, this, that. You can't see, you know, some fun on the court. I'm the guy who can play a lot of shots, sometimes stupid shots. But nobody plays between the legs on important points. I do that. I don't know why. I just like to do it, you know. That's me. It's always going to be me...if you miss, you know, it can hurt a lot.
- Lamenting the cold climate of the tennis world; Wimbledon 2001
Answering his Critics...
John McEnroe was my idol, you know, all my life. He was lefty; he was the player I always like to watch, you know. Great emotions on the court.
But as a person, I don't think much, 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, win 21 tournament, some of them on clay, you have to be genius, you know, to win with the one shot.
The way he's commentating, giving everybody s**t, you know, '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 think he's - 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 bulls**t about me and about everybody else. Let it be.
- Slightly disappointed about John McEnroe's less than complimentary commentating, pre-Final; Wimbledon 2001
No, no. Good for him I didn't see him. But he was very nice today, actually. You know, I heard before the match, he was talking, everything nice he talked about me... to come out, to say such a thing...
But, you know, also he came to me six days ago in the locker room. He say, 'Man, you playing good. I'm really happy for you. You can do it.'
Then after three days, he goes and say I have one shot, I'm bad, and this. This must be he's idiot, you know.
- On whether he saw John McEnroe after the Final; Wimbledon 2001
On Divine Intervention...
If some angel comes tonight in my dreams and say, 'Okay, Goran, you going to win Wimbledon tomorrow, but you not able to touch the racquet ever again in your life', I say, 'Okay, I rather take that and then never play tennis again in my life.'
- Making a theoretical deal with a winged messenger the night before the Final; Wimbledon 2001
First time I cross myself on the match point, I say, 'God, if I miss the first serve, I going to hit another big second serve. And, please, be good.' So then I hit that. 'Okay, no problem. Maybe God is on the lunch, so he didn't see me.'
- On praying for a second serve in versus Henman in the semis; Wimbledon 2001
Wimbledon 2001 - Close Encounters
I think he's just going through a purple patch right now. I think there's no explanation why a guy like him for two years loses like love, love and 1 at the US Open... after winning the first set 6-3 or 6-4. I don't get it. You know, the way he's playing this week, you know, if he played like that every week, he'd be up in the Top 5 or Top 10 easily.
- Greg Rusedski after a straight sets pasting in the fourth round by Goran
... it's difficult to return even second serve. It's very difficult. If I think Goran plays this way, the way he played today, if he doesn't win the title, I'll be really p****d with him. He can't lose this opportunity because I don't think he played this way like when he was in the final three times. Now he's playing the best tennis he could play. If he doesn't win, we'll change my mind about him.
- Marat Safin on the return of the serve and tipping for the final post-quarter finals
I don't know. I had a lot of people here. He obviously had someone pretty important, as well.
- Tim Henman when asked whether he thought Goran did indeed have God on his side in the semis
I guess he started believing in himself. Believed in his serve. When he served well, as I said before, he plays well. The rest of his game comes together.
- Pat Rafter's explanation of Goran's inexplicable return to form post-final
Foot in Mouth Disease
...a one-shot wonder...
- John McEnroe, BBC Tennis Commentator and Former Wimbledon Champion's alleged comments on Goran's gameplay; Wimbledon 2001
It was lucky that he was offered a wild-card, because I don't think he would have made it through the qualifying rounds...
- John Lloyd, BBC Tennis Commentator, on Goran's wild-card status; Wimbledon 2001
Some people have been commenting that I've accused Goran Ivanisevic of only having one shot - his serve.
I deny saying that. I don't think it's earth shattering news that his serve is his biggest weapon... Goran showed a lot of ability in other shots in the final. He is an outstanding athlete for such a tall man.
- John McEnroe piling on the compliments post-Final; Wimbledon 2001