27 June 2004

The former champion runs through the repertoire that has kept his fans enthralled for 15 years as he stretches out his Wimbledon encore

The final curtain is a difficult trick. Some do it grudgingly, some tragically, many take far too long about it. No one has done it better than Goran Ivanisevic at Wimbledon last week.

Being Goran he did not do it once, but three times: Monday’s “roll-back-the-years” three-setter to dazzle Mikhail Youzhny four days before the Russian’s 22nd birthday; followed by the five-set encore to overcome Livorno’s Filippo Volandri; then the last turn on the Centre Court stage, bowing out before the resurgent dynamo that is Lleyton Hewitt.

Each time the old wonder (can he really be only 32?) handled the occasion beyond imaging. “Beautiful,” he said in that captivatingly deep and fractured Croatian-English on Monday. “It is first time I walk on Centre Court in the first round in my whole Wimbledon career. “It’s new, nice. Grass is very green. Unbelievable feeling you know. After last time I play on Centre Court [winning the championship in 2001] I have great memory. Today I played another great match, you know.”

And he had. That was the beauty of it. Youzhny is nobody’s patsy and led his country to their first Davis Cup title in 2002, but last week he never had a chance against the gods that were with Ivanisevic. After the shoulder injury, which prevented Ivanisevic defending his title in 2002, and the long months of recuperation – followed by near humiliation as he endured first round losses on this year’s clay-court circuit, the Ivanisevic game had been put back together.

The aces flew from his racket as in the old days and when luck was needed the net cord would intervene. He kissed it in thanks so often that Youzhny mimicked him when he got one of his own.

The final signal from on high came with Ivanisevic serving in the final set and, having been passed for 0-15 on the opening point; then he had a good serve followed by a huge net cord on the return which slowly rolled back into his opponent’s court.

Youzhny tried to stay in the next rally but Goran caught him short with a drop shot. “He’s going through the bloody repertoire mate,” says my friend Bruce from the Sydney Morning Herald. It is 4-1 and poor Youzhny is looking shell-shocked. Three games later the young Muscovite is serving to stay alive at 5-2. A breath-taking stop volley by Goran makes it 15-all; then a beautiful lob 15-30. Another gorgeous stop volley and Goran knows the power is with him. Two match points at 15-40; match point and he raises his arms skywards in salute and walks across to the TV and gives a kiss through the lens to those back home.

He resumes stance. Youzhny does not want to lie down. His serve is earnest and keen but you sense that Ivanisevic is running the rally. There is a flow in the great moments of tennis. This is to be one. Under pressure Youzhny overhits. The court erupts. Goran raises his arms high, turns all round the court and then looks to the players’ box where his old, sick father stands. There is magic in the air. Happy, golden magic. Ivanisevic is back out of the shadows one more time with all his spells intact.

It wouldn’t matter if he never played another match but two more he did. On Thursday he ground his stiffened body through shower breaks and five self-recriminating sets against Volandri on Court No 2 to record his 600th career victory. “This is the match, you know, you don’t want to lose, you know.” Then, just a day later, he returned for the absolutely final encore on his beloved Centre Court against a Hewitt intent on reminding us of the impossible returns and unstoppable energy that took this theatre apart in 2002.

The match may have gone according to the script but the old loser’s role has never been played better. With a great effort he cranked up his shoulder to get as far as 4-4 before the reversed baseball cap at the other end began to buzz the baseline so fast that even the best drives came back with attitude.

Finally, at 30-all, the big man cracked, Hewitt running him so ragged that poor old Ivanisevic ended up lying flat on his face beneath the umpire. He got up creakily, lost the next point, limped off to the chair and, only a couple of minutes, later Hewitt had pulled the final trigger.

Now the moment came washing over all of us – 15 years as craggy, gypsy-bearded, ever-volatile man and gangly, flashing-eyed boy, Ivanisevic had been a very special presence and an unforgettable talent who, in 2001, came back as a wild card to take the title which the fates had seemed intent on denying him.

Now for the last time he stood here, gesturing to his father in the players’ box, waving to the crowds, bathing in the applause. It was theatre of the purest kind. We, grateful witnesses of an unrepeatable final act.

“Everything was right,” he said afterwards, that wonderfully mischievous but reassuringly gentle smile lighting up the face. “The weather, the crowd, the court. I just enjoy myself, I am happy and sad. I’m sad that I have to leave, but I’m happy that it’s no more practising, no more questions from you guys [another smile]. But is great. Was really great. Fifteen years – I really enjoyed every minute of my career.”

When we had left him he spoke in Croatian to his compatriots. It was a more serious Ivanisevic. One who spoke of his thanks to his mother and father, of his devotion to his partner, Tatiana, and their young daughter, Ambra Maria. You remembered the scenes when 150,000 thronged the port of Split for Goran’s post-Wimbledon homecoming.

To adapt the greatest wordsmith of them all – “nothing in his Wimbledon life became Goran like the leaving it”.

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