Cult Grade: The One Wildcard
Know which tennis player has personality? No, of course not. There aren't any. Okay, there are some. But condemn me to a long afternoon in a room with Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Andy Murray (27 Grand Slams between them) and watch me wonder how quickly the curtain can be turned into a primitive noose. And, unsurprisingly, the one who by an absolute mile has the least majors seems, by a small amount, the most interesting of the three. They all look like decent guys, but in the end they're also straight guys. See the spade, call the spade.
The guy who does racket-restringing at Wimbledon describes Roger Federer as 'happy to enjoy a coffee and sit down and not talk with you for half an hour'. Warming to his task, he goes on, 'The players are really not that exciting. They live in their own little world.' Now, to be fair to Roger, the guy who does racket-restringing at Wimbledon might be a bellend. Fed might have taken one look at him with his racket-restringing machine and decided, 'I'm just going to watch an episode of a Swiss TV show in my head.'
But you kind of know, don't you, the essential truth about tennis: that if any sport is suited to having as little going on in your head to distract you as possible, it's that one. As the game has become faster, the more necessarily boring its players have become. Not stupid by any means: just boring.
Not all of them are, though. Some are just messy humans armed with tennis talent. But this isn't a charity: it's The Cult. Only one of them, by virtue of his achievement, gets elevated beyond your slew of show-off perennial quarter-finalists who never really cared deep-down about winning a big one. And that's the difference: Federer, Serena Williams, they're fixated on winning. Goran cared, like you'd care about your childhood dog.
Point of Entry: Medium
Ivanisevic, 6'4 and all heart, was a choker. The stats imply it: three quarter-finals at the Australian, three at the French, a semi at the U.S., and prior to 2001, 0/3 in Wimbledon finals.
But the stats aren't the whole truth as to the big-game choker he actually was. He started the final game against Agassi in his first Wimbledon final in 1992 with two double-faults, having served five previously in the entire match. I can actually remember his second final, against Sampras in 1994. After powerbombing serves and desperate volleys through two sets, which Sampras still won in a tie-break, come the third, I think even the seven-year old me could tell Goran was no longer there. 7-6, 7-6, 6-0.
And the thing about choking is, you tend to stay choked. In 1998, he dragged himself back to two sets all, of course against bloody Sampras – a man with all the facial intrigue of a suburban oven-mitt – and then got battered in the fifth via a palpable inability to hold it together. At least not like Sampras could. Ask Sampras what he was thinking about, and you feel he'd just blink at you and say, in that pleasing American knockabout style, 'give you one guess.' And then say 'tennis' before you could guess.
Hardly the stuff of The Cult. Except, the above isn't Goran. He's not a false positive for the fact that sport at the highest level is the preserve of machines; he's proof that it usually is. Then occasionally, with a dose of luck, it's an Elysium where messy humans with the right amount of talent and an explosion of heart can rock the joint in a way you can't forget. The luck was that 2001 came between the end of Sampras and the start of Federer, and also – although this was England, so it might not have been quite the gift from God Goran proclaimed – that it rained. Whatever: Goran is the One Wildcard.
The Moment: A Day Alone, 2001 Wimbledon Semi-Final vs Tim Henman
We join him choking. He took the first set 7-5, lost the second at tie-break, and fell into that place after losing important tie-breaks that he must have known well, slicing him up with all those downcast faces. Third set, 0-6, in about 15 minutes. He got to 3-2 in the fourth; and then he got what he'd been so bad at taking for himself. A break. London pissed it down.
I can remember so clearly a point they played, when they came back out the next day, after Goran had completed whatever end-of-the-line levelling he needed to do to give himself a chance. The famous part sees him, having slipped on the grass as he went to the ball, still getting up to hit a winner; but actually the real part was the shot he played to set it up. You'd never seen Goran hit the ball so violently, like one time he'd decided to just go face-first through all the things that must have assured him by then he wasn't up to this shit, that he was not like them. I think that now; at the time it would have been more like KABLAMO! in my teenage brain.
Maybe that's the difference – Sampras had no inhibitions about making Goran cry about being Goran on the biggest stage of all. But Goran wasn't built to pull the kill-mode trigger. You feel he might get halfway into it, then glance at the crowd and think so many beautiful women are here today to witness this. Even this time he nearly choked his match-points, then didn't, then nearly choked the final against Pat Rafter. He dragged himself through the final fifth-set game, clearly insane with nerves and playing every wrong shot in the book, including a volley when the ball was out, two double-faults, and about eight missed first-serves. But, crucially, he was still there. Yeah I'm a choker: watch me choke. I find that heroic. The reward is that he was, and still is, the only wildcard entry to have ever won a Grand Slam.
"Wrong, wrong, wrong – Ivanišević!" ––Goran to the unfortunate umpire who repeatedly mangled the Croatian's name.
This article was originally published in July 2015