Wimbledon Throwback: When Goran became peoples’ champion

The most prestigious event on the tennis calendar, Wimbledon, was supposed to begin on June 29. But the major, known for its manicured lawns and crisp white attire, has been cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Through the fortnight, we will feature some of the most memorable Wimbledon finals. Today we take a look at how after three attempts, Goran Ivanisevic finally took the crown…

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2001: Goran Ivanisevic beat Pat Rafter 6–3, 3–6, 6–3, 2–6, 9–7

It was the wildest of rides by wildcard Goran Ivanisevic at Wimbledon 2001.

The Croat, a three-time finalist at the major before that, had slipped to 125 in the world rankings. But given his record at Wimbledon, and the potential of that wicked lefty serve, he was handed a wildcard into the main draw.

No expectations

At the time, he was 29 and his shoulder had been bothering him a while. No one, including Ivanisevic himself, expected much of him.

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He started building momentum in the first week, taking out 21st seed Carlos Moya in the second round, Andy Roddick in the third and Greg Rusedski in the fourth. But it wasn’t until the rain-affected semi-final against Tim Henman, played over three days, that Ivanisevic believed in the dream again.

“Yes, I did feel like the stars were lining up,” he had said in an interview.

Helped by the rain

The Croat was two sets to one down, more importantly had lost the third set 0-6, when the heavens opened up. He came back in a better frame of mind, and won the match 7-5, 6-7, 0-6, 7-6, 6-3 to make it to the final. Again.

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“I have so many runner-up cups that I am thinking of starting my own tea shop,” Ivanisevic had once quipped of his losing record.

With the rain playing havoc with the schedule, the final was played on a Monday.  The gates were thrust open to public, tickets sold at the turnstiles for a mere £40 and more than 10,000 people crammed into Centre Court.

Ivanisevic celebrates his victory in the stands

Day of the Final

Facing Ivanisevic was the exquisite volleyer, Pat Rafter. The Australian was ranked No 3 in the world at the time and already had two Grand Slam titles (1997, 1998 US Open) to his name. But it was his first outing at a Wimbledon final.

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The charged atmosphere seemed to get to both the players, neither quite able to wrest the momentum. Ivanisevic won the opening set 6-3, only to see Rafter capture the second by the same scoreline. They split the next two sets as well and everything boiled down to who held their nerve in the all-important final set.

History didn’t look back kindly on the Croat. Two of his past three finals had gone into the fifth set, and ‘Bad Goran’ had lost to Andre Agassi in 1992 and Pete Sampras in 1998 in the decider. But at 6-7, 15-30 down  in the decider Ivanisevic managed to keep his cool and coast to safety.

Tears of joy

As famous as Ivanisevic is for his booming serve, it was a sharp return winner in the next game that saw him earn the break.

After years of struggle, the Croat hadn’t ever been this close to victory. And the emotion showed. Twice on match point, Ivanisevic double-faulted. He was visibly shaken, but on the fourth match-point the Croat managed to sneak in a solid second serve. When Rafter’s return crashed into the net, Ivanisevic melted into tears of relief, and joy.

It was the peoples’ final, and he was their champion.

“I don’t care now if I ever win a match in my life again,” he had said. “Whatever I do in my life, wherever I go, I’m going to be always Wimbledon champion.”

He remains the only wildcard and the lowest-ranked player to win the Championships.

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