Not only was this a wild card entrant winning at SW19 – he is still the only man to do so at any grand slam event in the open era – it was achieved in impossibly dramatic circumstances in front of a 15,000-strong football-style audience, most of whom had gatecrashed the final of a tournament which stretched into an unprecedented third Monday.
The impression that this was a mixture of sport and Hollywood was only confirmed by the presence of Jack Nicholson and Steve Waugh’s touring Australian cricketers in the centre court crowd on so-called ‘People’s Monday’. And, Andy Murray take note: our tortured Croatian hero’s moment of redemption against Pat Rafter came after failure in his three previous grand slam finals, all at SW19.
This was no ordinary Wimbledon final. But then it had been no ordinary semi-final either. Britain was staring hard at its first male All England club singles finalist since Bunny Austin in 1938 when Tim Henman took the third set 6-0 to establish a 2-1 lead over the flagging Croat. The rain came and washed that all way. By the time referee Alan Mills came into the locker room at 7.45pm and told both players that play was done for the night the situation had changed utterly. “As soon as we stopped I knew I was going to win,” Ivanisevic said recently. “I saw Tim’s face and he wasn’t happy. I think he knew also.”
Ivanisevic returned the next day to take the fourth set on a tie-break and then, on the Sunday, completed a 6-3 final-set victory but, if luck played its part in Ivanisevic’s SW19 triumph, it was a minor participant.
By the end of the tournament, the Croat had more than earned his corn. He he had served a record 213 aces and could reflect on victories on enemy soil against home favourites Greg Rusedski and Henman – both of whom would reach No.4 in the world – and victories over a young Andy Roddick, Carlos Moya, Marat Safin and Rafter – all of whom had been, or would go on to be, world No.1. Not bad for a 29-year-old from Split who had entered the competition ranked 125th in the world and who was widely thought to be on the slide after troubles with his left shoulder.
Ivanisevic is an occasional visitor to South West London these days, but he has been mentoring countryman Marin Cilic in recent years and will make sure to be back for the 10th anniversary of his heroics.
At times he has appeared reluctant to indulge those memories, but they are never far away. He had lost to Andre Agassi in 1992, and Pete Sampras in 1994 and 1998 and his preparation for his fourth Wimbledon final was hardly ideal: he had barely slept a wink the night before and the shoulder injury wasn’t helping. He had spent the morning watching Teletubbies and for superstitious reasons he elected to get ready in the small locker room, away from Rafter.
As soon as both men walked out on court it became pretty clear the 2001 final was going to be a bit different. Most of the crowd who had queued overnight for their tickets had been there for a good two hours before play started, and the noise was unrelenting enough to render the umpire’s pleas for calm utterly redundant. Even the sight of the green and gold seemed to inspire the Croat.
The eventual scoreline was 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7 but the drama couldn’t be measured in raw numbers. Every time the big serving Ivanisevic chiselled out an advantage he would find Rafter battling back at him. And then there were his own personal demons to confront. Break point down in the fourth set, the Croat double faulted, the first of which was a foot fault. It prompted an appearance of so-called ‘Bad Goran’, as the Croat kicked the net and screamed an oath to the heavens.
“I kicked the net a little bit and had a scream,” he has said. “But I was never defaulted because of bad behaviour. I would get to the penalty point then stop. Tim Henman, a gentleman of tennis, got defaulted at Wimbledon and so did Andre Agassi.”
Having composed himself, the final set went with serve until 7-7, before an inspired return game from Ivanisevic led to the break. After a nerve-shredding deuce, the Croat finally came through, lying on the ground and shaking feverishly after securing championship point.
Wimbledon has seen plenty of theatre in its 125-year history. But few were more dramatic than the day the Croat got the cup.