As Wimbledon comes to a close, we're counting down the 10 most memorable matches at the All England Club over the last 50 years.
“Wild enthusiasm,” “carnival atmosphere,” “immense noise,” “unfettered joy”: These are not terms you normally hear used to describe a match on Centre Court. But the 2001 Wimbledon men’s final wasn’t just any match on Centre Court.
It was, for one thing, one of the few ever to be played on the Monday after the tournament had been scheduled to end; an especially rainy fortnight that year had pushed the still-roofless tournament past its Sunday finish. That meant the men’s final was played in front of fans—10,000 of them—who had lined up to buy tickets, first-come, first-served. Many were partisan supporters of either Ivanisevic or Rafter, and they had waited through the night for the chance to watch these two veteran stars, both of whom was pushing 30, try to win their first Wimbledon. Hallowed lawn or no hallowed lawn, they weren’t about to stay quiet for the occasion. “The People’s Final,” it was called, and the two players put on a show that no one inside or outside of Centre Court would ever forget.
Coming in, Ivanisevic and Rafter may have been the two best grass-courters never to have won the sport’s biggest grass-court title. The Croat had lost three finals at Wimbledon, two of them in fifth-set heartbreakers, to Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. By 2001, the 29-year-old Ivanisevic’s lifelong quest appeared to be over. Ranked No. 125, with a shoulder that needed surgery, and having won just nine matches all season, he was granted a wild card. Few believed he would do much with it.
This time, though, it was Goran’s turn to dish out some heartbreak to the locals, and make Wimbledon officials rue their decision to allow him into the draw. In the fourth round, Ivanisevic eliminated one British hopeful, Greg Rusedski; then, in the semis, in a five-setter played over three days, in a match where he was two points from defeat, Ivanisevic eliminated another Brit, Tim Henman.
As for Rafter, he had also suffered anguish at the hands of Sampras at Wimbledon; the previous year, he had lost the final to the American after nearly taking a two sets to love lead. But in 2001, Rafter had knocked off Sampras’s countryman, Agassi, in a classic semifinal, 8-6 in the fifth set. Even better, Sampras himself wasn’t waiting for Rafter in the final. The seven-time champion had been upset in the fourth round by a 19-year-old named Roger Federer. The future was on its way. For Rafter and Ivanisevic, it was now or never.
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As their names were chanted and sung across Center Court, the Aussie and the Croat traded the momentum back and forth for four sets; nothing seemed entirely stable in this football-match atmosphere. Ivanisevic, as always, relied on his laser lefty serve, while Rafter used his bounding, predatory athleticism to patrol the net. In the fourth set, the simmering Ivanisevic finally boiled over. After being called for a foot-fault, he kicked the net and threw his arms wildly in the air, before finally calming down again. This wasn’t the time or the place for the famously volatile Croat to let his dark side—a part of his personality that he liked to call Bad Goran—loose.
The title came, as it had to, down to a fifth set. For the first time, both men played well—or at least bravely—at the same time. The tension was so suffocating that some fans had to leave their seats and walk out of the arena so they could breathe again. Serving at 4-4, Rafter went down 0-30 before holding. At 6-7, Ivanisevic fell behind 15-30, two points from defeat, before clawing out a hold of his own. At 7-7, down 15-40, Rafter tried a slow, high-kicking, change of pace first serve, but it didn’t fool Ivanisevic, who smacked it for a winner.
“Bad move,” Rafter said.
At 8-7, serving for the title, Ivanisevic reached match on his serve, only to double fault by three feet. He reached match point again, only to double fault again. Finally, on the fourth try, Ivanisevic found a second serve, and Rafter’s return found the net. Ivanisevic went berserk all over again, but for once it was the Good Goran, the Happy Goran, who had a chance to go berserk with joy. He climbed into the stands to hug his father, Srdan, and dedicated the win to his late friend, the Croatian basketball player Drazen Petrovic.
“Someone had to lose, and I’m the loser again,” a disheartened Rafter said, eliciting a collective “Awww” from the audience. It was the last match he would play at Wimbledon.
Ivanisevic would return just once, in 2003, exiting in the third round. It really had been now or never for both men. Even today, though, Ivanisevic isn’t sure how he was able to survive his fourth Wimbledon final.
“It’s an unsolved mystery how I won,” Ivanisevic told CNN years later. “It was written somewhere that it was my time. Why do it easy, if you can do it the hard way?”
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.