The din in the arena was incredible. It was hard to believe this was Centre Court, Wimbledon, home to polite applause and dignified cheers. In its place, a football match atmosphere prevailed. It was 40-30, 8-7 in the fifth set as the tall, lanky player in whites made his way back to the service line. Championship Point. Goran Ivanisevic was visibly shaking and choking back the emotions as he stepped up to summon his monster serve one last time, a weapon which had deserted him over the last half hour or so. True to current form, he turned in a double fault. Deuce. The crowd gasped.
It was 2001, the Men’s Singles Final at the Championships, Wimbledon between Patrick Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic. The match had quickly built up into an epic. And while the tension was keeping the audience on the edge of their seats, there was also a sense of inevitability to the incredulous scenes being witnessed, a full awareness that one of the most improbable runs ever by a tennis player was reaching its climax, and the most unlikely of results was actually turning into reality. If human drama and context ever played a defining role in a tennis match, it was on this day.
Goran Ivanisevic, the big-serving Croat, had been marked out for greatness at Wimbledon more than a decade earlier. His power game, built around a fearsome first serve, was custom-made for grass. And if the nature of his game led to it being accused as ‘boring’ and a ‘snooze fest’, he more than made up for it with an eccentric, emotional, passionate-bordering-on-wild personality. He was known as much for his serve-and-charge approach to the net as for his colourful rants at himself on the tennis court, for his service games that lasted less than a minute as for his brooding interviews laced with doleful humour. At Wimbledon, he had made it thrice to the finals earlier, each ending in heart-breaking losses, once to Andre Agassi, and twice to his bête noir Pete Sampras. By the end of 2000 however, Ivanisevic was 29, nursing a persistent shoulder injury, and had dropped out of the top 100. He seemed to be, for all purposes, a spent force, and it appeared certain he would remain one of the best players never to win a tournament seemingly designed for him. In 2001, he applied for a wild card to enter Wimbledon, and the organizers duly complied, solely on the basis of his past credentials at the tournament. It turned out to be an inspired decision, as Ivanisevic returned to the venue that most defined him, and played with a freedom that belied the wear and tear on his body. As he rolled through his matches over the fortnight, defeating players like Carlos Moya, Andy Roddick and Greg Rusedski, people began to sit up, take notice and start wondering about the possibilities. He did it all with a sense of incredulity himself, scarcely believing the roll he was on, and in the process, got countless fans hoping against hope for him. He received good news in the form of his arch rival of multiple Wimbledon battles, Pete Sampras, being taken out by a young Swiss upstart, Roger Federer – an intriguing storyline in itself. He then proceeded to script an epic in the semi-finals, taking out the home crowd favourite Tim Henman over five excruciating sets in a match that took three rain-filled days to complete. Goran Ivanisevic’s improbable context was in place for the finale.
Across the net he now faced Patrick Rafter, the Australian who embodied everything good about his country’s approach to sports and attitude to life. Rafter was the last of a dying breed – a compulsive serve-and-volleyer, and had been, for some time now, among the title contenders at Wimbledon. The third seed was also a genuine crowd favourite, with his soft-spoken demenour off-court contrasting with his competitive spirit on it. In his semi-finals, he had just beaten an ageing star in Andre Agassi in five enthralling sets. The match was a purists’ delight, with Rafter’s instinctive forays to the net pitted against the baseline solidity of Agassi. The adventurous, grass-court style worked in the end, and Rafter entered his second consecutive Wimbledon final. The previous year, he had played as a definite underdog against Sampras for the championship; this time, he knew he was in with much more of a chance. He had also refused to quell rumours about the year being his last on tour, and hence, entered the match with substantial public support on his side as well. Patrick Rafter’s sentimental context was in place for the finale.