It’s early May 2001, S Club 7 are battling Geri Haliwell for the UK number one and Countdown has just celebrated it’s 3000th episode. In the Balkans, Goran Ivanisevic is at home in Croatia pondering the next step of his tennis career, ranked at 125th in the world. Eight weeks later, he will return to his native city of Split and be greeted by a crowd of a hundred thousand fans having won Wimbledon.
It had been a less than prestigious season to that point for Ivanisevic, a quarter final appearance at the Milan Indoor a rare glimmer of his former class. He was no stranger to success, a former World number two with twenty ATP titles and runner up in no less than three previous Wimbledon finals. However, just nine wins that year and regularly occurring shoulder problems saw him edging towards the horizon forever known as “the best man never to win” the ultimate prize on hallowed turf.
An imposing figure on court, Ivanisevic was famed for a sledgehammer of a serve. But as with all elite tennis stars, what often makes the difference is whether they can express their skill from a foundation of the correct temperament. In one of his early forays into a major, the 1991 appearance at the US Open against Ivan Lendl, an LA Times report of the day explains “he blasted 21 aces but had eight double faults. He blew a 4-1 lead in the third set and lost the next five games”. An example of youthful exuberance getting in the way of crowning glory. By 1998 the “gunslinger” was preparing for a third attempt at winning the oldest of tennis tournaments, and a second final against Pete Sampras. But again, despite an eye watering 82 service winners, it would be an amount of unforced errors that would leave him just short and wondering if the opportunity at glory would ever come again.
And so we arrive back in 2001, where the decorated career behind the Croatian was enough for tournament organisers to grant a wildcard into the singles draw. The Wimbledon rules state that “wild cards are players whose world ranking is not high enough to qualify automatically for The Championships but who are accepted into the main Championships draw at the discretion of the Committee”. What an image to picture of that discussion around an old oak table within the bowels of Centre Court, and how easy it could have been for the Committee to select someone else thus overlooking the man who would be King.
In the weeks that followed, the likes of Andy Roddick, Carlos Moya and Marat Safin would fall at the hands of the rediscovered form flowing through Ivanisevic. Not to mention his felling of home favourites Tim Henman, in the Semi Final, and Greg Rusedski.
It all culminated in the day that would be forever known as ‘The People’s Final’ given it was played on Monday, a day later than usual. Pat Rafter stood between Ivanisevic and the most unlikely of Grand Slam wins. The Goran of old was still there, exploding in anger at a fourth-set serve being judged out. Racket flying and net kicked, was the story of three previous final defeats on Centre Court being told again?
Not this time. A three-hour, tennis bonanza was brought to a close as Rafter netted and the Champion collapsed to the floor overwhelmed by emotion. And why wouldn’t he? A win over ten years in the making which by his own words felt like a dream. “I don’t know if someone is going to wake me up and tell me I haven’t won again.”
There is surely no event in tennis, or any sport for that matter, where the anticipation and fervour gathers momentum like Wimbledon. Seeing 128 players whittled down over two weeks of late night finishes and rain delays, a gruelling test of resolve and determination. The narrative of Ivanisevic’s finest hour was almost tailor made to play out at SW19, gently building before lighting the blue touch paper.
Sometimes sport makes you feel as if destiny is being acted out in front of your eyes, and Wimbledon 2001 is contender for the greatest of all.