Usually when we associate a tennis player with a significant venue, it’s to celebrate triumphs. Martina Navratilova and Wimbledon. Jimmy Connors and the US Open. Rafael Nadal and Roland Garros.
Don’t tell that to Goran Ivanisevic. He and Wimbledon spent a decade building a different story. Three times in the ‘90s, Ivanisevic lost in the finals. Granted, those defeats had come versus tremendous players—a five-set heartbreak to a sizzling Andre Agassi in ’92, followed by a pair of losses to Pete Sampras, straight sets in ’94 and an agonizing five-setter in ’98. Skilled as Ivanisevic was on the grass—aided most of all by a blistering lefty serve—perhaps some things were just not meant to be. As the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, and I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker.”
By June of 2001, Ivanisevic was ranked 125 in the world and a well-worn 29 years old. A shoulder injury had brought him to the brink of retirement. Likely as a nice gesture for old time’s sake, the All England Club gave him a wild card.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the exit. One by one, Ivanisevic kept knocking off fine players. This included three that at various points would be ranked No. 1 in the world, Carlos Moya, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin. Suddenly, for the sixth time, he was in the semis. Even then, the idea of at last winning the tournament seemed a dim notion—well, perhaps a flicker.
Ivanisevic’s opponent that Friday was hometown hero, Tim Henman. The Oxford native was feeling quite confident, having just beaten a promising teenager from Switzerland named Roger Federer. And Federer had aided the causes of both Henman and Ivanisevic by eliminating the mighty Sampras.
After Henman and Ivanisevic split the first two sets, the British man raced through the third, 6-0, and went up 2-1 in the fourth. All seemed in Henman’s favor as he sought to become first British male to reach the singles final in 63 years. But then came another hometown product: rain.
“We when we back into the locker room I was very upset at the way I was playing,” Ivanisevic said in a 2017 story that ran in The Telegraph. “For half an hour I was very upset, but then I started to laugh.” Then, later that evening, when tournament referee Alan Mills made the official announcement that match would be suspended until Saturday, “from that moment I knew it was mine.”
Upon resumption, Ivanisevic won the fourth in a tiebreaker and the two were on serve in the fifth, with Henman serving at 2-3. Once again, the rain came. But the next day, in only 14 minutes, Ivanisevic had finished the job, winning the match 7-5, 6-7 (6), 0-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3.
With this final now being delayed to an unscheduled Monday, the All England Club sold Centre Court seats on a first-come, first-served basis. It would be nicknamed, “People’s Monday.” Aussie Patrick Rafter, runner-up a year ago, had won a scintillating semi versus Agassi and had the kind of attacking game necessary to press Ivanisevic.
Back and forth the two went, naturally, all the way to a fifth set. At 7-all, 15-30, Rafter served and was victimized by two consecutive Ivanisevic return winners.
All those years of Wimbledon nightmares were about to end. But on his first championship point, at 40-30, Ivanisevic double-faulted. Two points later, another. On championship point number three, Rafter lofted a lob winner.
At last, down the middle Ivanisevic went with a vicious 109 m.p.h. second serve. Rafter’s forehand found the net.
Game, set and match to Ivanisevic—6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7. “I don’t even care now if I ever win a match again in my life,” he said.
The words above the entrance to Centre Court are iconic: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster . . . and treat those two imposters just the same.” For so long, Ivanisevic had been forced to do that the hard way. This time, at last, treatment came much easier.