If we played a word association game, the most common response to “tennis” would, without an iota of doubt, be Wimbledon. It is the only major played on tennis’s original surface: grass. Believe it or not, for nearly seven decades, 3 out of 4 majors were played on grass. Wimbledon is the oldest slam. It is the most resistant to change, still giving importance to tradition. This makes it the most prestigious tournament in tennis. What other tournament can make a person who said “grass is for cows” — Ivan Lendl — skip

The French Open in order to get extra preparation for Wimbledon? Or make an “Image is Everything” guy weep with joy while crawling on the grass in amazement, as was the case with Andre Agassi in 1992?

Grass is a very quick, slippery surface that rewards big serving, attacking play and first-strike fearlessness. In other words, it was a surface tailor-made for Goran Ivanisevic. The Australian Open was too hot, the French Open was too slow, and the US Open came too late in the season. Wimbledon was his most successful major, the slam where he kept running into his nemesis: Pete Sampras. Pistol Pete didn’t serve as many aces as Ivanisevic but he did everything else a teensy bit better. After losing an utterly heartbreaking 5-setter to the Greek-Angeleno in the 1998 Wimbledon final, his career went into a tailspin. He went from No. 12 in 1998 to 129 by 2000. Entering Wimbledon in 2001, he had not reached a final since November of 1998.

Before The 2001 Championships, 124 players were ranked ahead of him. It wasn’t enough for him to attain an automatic place in the 128-player draw. His past record as a three-time finalist, though, earned him a wild card and thus began the most improbable cathartic Cinderella journey tennis had ever seen. He first drew a qualifier from Sweden, Fredrik Jonsson, and dispatched him in straight sets. Next up was former World No. 1 and Roland Garros champion Carlos Moya. Grass was distinctly the Spaniard’s weakest surface but he was seeded 21st. Ivanisevic was nowhere near the terror he was in the 1990s to people not named Pete Sampras.  

Moya proceeded to take the first set, 8-6 in the tiebreaker. Ivanisevic, however, rediscovered his serve in this match. He went on a tear, taking the subsequent three sets 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, pounding 34 aces to set up a clash with the young, big-serving hotshot, Andy Roddick. Goran dropped serve just once in the third set and won in four, 7-6(5), 7-5, 3-6, 6-3, in a match that lasted just 1:54. Roddick was not too dissimilar to the Croat and would face multiple heartbreaks at the hands of his own version of Pete Sampras: Roger Federer. Sadly the Nebraskan would never have his moment of glory on the hallowed Centre Court.

Next up for Ivanisevic was the Canadian-Polish-Briton, big serving Greg Rusedski. Ivanisevic thrashed him without facing a single break point while converting 2 of 2 on Rusedski’s serve to sail through to the last eight for the first time in three years. Things were about to get even better. A talented, mercurial, pony-tailed teenager from Basel produced the biggest shock since Peter Doohan became the Becker-Wrecker in 1987. Federer took out Sampras, the 7-time champion on a 27-match winning streak at Wimbledon, in five sets. Just like that, Ivanisevic’s biggest nemesis was out of the picture. The light at the end of the proverbial tunnel just became a tad brighter.

Defending U.S. Open champion and fellow member of the capricious club, Marat Safin, stood between the Croat and the final four. Ivanisevic, serving smoothly and fiercely, took the first two sets 7-6(2), 7-5, before Bad Goran made himself available. The young Tatar took full advantage and a single break was enough to give himself a fighting chance. A tense fourth set went to the tiebreaker, where Ivanisevic rediscovered the fury and fire of the first two sets and won it 7-3. He became the first-ever wildcard to reach the semifinals at The Championships. Home favourite Tim Henman defeated Sampras-killer Federer in four sets to set up the top-half semifinal.

Pat Rafter defeated Andre Agassi for the second year in a row in another all-time classic five-setter to reach the Wimbledon final again. Ivanisevic continued from where he left and took the first set against Henman in his semifinal, 7-5. The second set went to a tiebreaker. The Croat held a set point but Henman saved it and took the set 8-6 in the breaker. This banished Good Goran and the Brit took full advantage. Henman won the third set 6-0 in just under 15 minutes. Just like that Henman was six games away from becoming the first British male finalist at Wimbledon, lest we anger Sir Andy Murray, in 63 years. Ivanisevic was 40-30, 1-2 down in the fourth when the heavens opened. This was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Good Goran won the left/right shoulder battle upon the resumption. According to Ivanisevic, it was God who sent the rain to help him. Only 51 minutes of play was possible on Saturday, but it was enough for Ivanisevic to take the fourth set 7-5 in the tiebreaker and go 3-2 up on serve in the fifth set. One break in the fifth set on Sunday was enough to take the big man into his fourth Wimbledon final, his first final of any kind in more than two and a half years.

A total of 10,000 fans queued up to pay ‎£40 to watch the Monday final. Ivanisevic raced to a 3-0 lead after breaking Rafter in his first service game. The lone break was enough to give him the first set. The second set was the mirror image of the first, with Rafter racing to a 3-0 lead and taking the set 6-3. The third set followed a similar one-break pattern. Ivanisevic, for the first time in four attempts in a Wimbledon final, was ahead 2-1 after three sets. The two-time U.S. Open champion from Australia refused to concede, however. From 2-2 in the fourth set, he won four straight games to send the final into a one-set tiebreaker-less shootout. Rafter would also have the advantage of serving first.

The support in the stadium was mostly for Rafter, including the Australian cricket team led by Iceman Steve Waugh. The match was largely drama-free until 5-4 Rafter with Ivanisevic serving. After serving an unreturnable to make it 40-15, Ivanisevic started to ask for the same ball back for luck. He served an ace to make it 5-5. The Aussie began to show signs of fatigue, going down 15-30, but recovered to 40-30. He served a double fault to be pushed to deuce, but he got through to hold for 6-5. Ivanisevic calmly served out to 15 and made the score 6-6. Rafter found a second wind and held at 15 for 7-6.  

It was Ivanisevic’s turn to show nerves. He went down 0-30, two points from yet another heartbreak. He then proceeded to win three points, but Rafter forced deuce with a perfect volley. The Croat righted his missile guidance system and held for 7-7. Ivanisevic Sr., Goran’s dad, was just back from heart surgery. The son wasn’t making the father’s recovery any easier.

Rafter’s nerves then returned at the right time for Ivanisevic. The Aussie simply could not find a first serve and at 15-30, Ivanisevic read a wide serve correctly and passed Rafter with a crosscourt forehand. Two break points. Once again Rafter faulted and Ivanisevic read his second serve, this time down the T, and hit an inside-out return to break.

As the cliché goes, close-out games are the hardest. Ivanisevic hit a nervous volley long to go down 0-15. A big serve was followed by a double fault. A second serve ace got Goran to 30-30 and Ivanisevic asked for the same ball for good luck. An ace down the T brought Ivanisevic his first-ever Wimbledon championship point in four finals. He crossed himself, begged to the sky, and readied himself for the biggest moment of his life.

The result: a wild double fault! Deuce. Then the other side of the Goran roller-coaster reemerged just in time: a 122-mph serve was unreturned and created championship point number two. Ivanisevic Sr.’s heart was about to burst.

The prodigal son served another double.  

Rafter’s backhand slice pass on the second deuce point was micrometres wide and Ivanisevic had his third match point. He was on his knees begging, praying. He tried to wrongfoot Rafter with a backhand volley but the Aussie calmly lobbed the tall Goran to save a third championship point. With grace under immense fire. Ivanisevic dug deep to find an incredible second serve — Rafter netted it — to give himself a fourth bite at the cherry. Yet another stupendous second serve from Ivanisevic’s quiver was netted by Rafter again, and in that moment, the long uphill battle finally ended. The Big Croat had at long last captured his first Wimbledon title.

He fell flat on his stomach and rained down tears. He collected himself and ran straight to his father and hugged him with all his might.

After three haunting defeats on Centre Court, Ivanisevic finally got to see things from the other side of the river. Sure, it was his first title since February of 1998. Sure, it took him up 109 places to No. 16 in the world rankings. But all that was irrelevant. He finally lifted the World Cup trophy of tennis. He was a Wimbledon Champion at last. Nothing else mattered.

Image source – Getty sport

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