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A Wild Ride
S.L. Price
July 16, 2001
In a wacky fortnight, wild card Goran Ivanisevic charged to his first Wimbledon title, and Venus Williams cruised to her second
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July 16, 2001

A Wild Ride

In a wacky fortnight, wild card Goran Ivanisevic charged to his first Wimbledon title, and Venus Williams cruised to her second

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She flew above it all. The rains came and shredded the schedule; her father made the usual spectacle of himself by babbling about how she might retire; her sister ran out of the tournament grabbing at her ailing gut. None of it came close to touching her. Venus Williams spent the Wimbledon fortnight like a queen in a tower in the sky, so remote it was eerie. She didn't want worship. She didn't want coaching. "I wanted silence," she said on Sunday. "I wanted to do my own thinking, and I didn't want anyone to bother me. I knew what I was going to do. I wasn't going to play silly. I was going to execute."

She executed, all right. Gliding through the draw with regal ease, taking out opponents with off-with-their-heads imperiousness, she won her second straight Wimbledon crown—and third Grand Slam event in 12 months—by hammering 19-year-old upstart Justine Henin 6-1, 3-6, 6-0 in Sunday's final. After dismantling Henin's gorgeous backhand with flat, skidding 115-mph serves and heavy groundstrokes, Williams took only a few halfhearted hops in celebration. The crowd cheered politely. She didn't care. "For sure, they wanted her to win," Williams said of Henin, "but it's not an issue. I don't need approval."

Wimbledon has a long tradition of champions more respected than loved, but Bjorn Borg, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and the man Williams replaces as the most feared player on grass, 29-year-old Pete Sampras, all eventually revealed that they had yearned for the fans' affection. However, at 21 Williams betrays no insecurity, no grand ambition, no drive to break any career record—nothing, that is, but her astonishing speed and the ability to suddenly raise her game, with no grass-court preparation, to genius level. Stung by her loss six weeks ago in the first round of the French Open, Williams went home to South Florida and practiced her way back into the form that won her two Grand Slam singles titles and an Olympic gold medal last year.

Just as astonishing was Williams's ability to concentrate amid the growing chaos around her. Wimbledon 2001 was a palace coup. The king, Sampras, was deposed; Andre the Giant took to cursing and firing balls at linespeople; and a plague known as Henmania infected the populace. Most jarring, a court jester named Goran Ivanisevic, who introduced himself variously as Good Goran, 911 Goran and Crazy Goran, took over. He popped painkillers, ripped off his shirt after winning, watched Teletubbies each morning—and then outlasted Australia's Patrick Rafter 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7 in Monday's excruciatingly wondrous men's final to become the first wild card to win a Grand Slam tournament.

"If somebody told me that two months ago, I would say, 'Man, you're crazy,' " said Ivanisevic, the 125th-ranked player, who pulled off one of the greatest series of upsets in tennis history. The 29-year-old Croatian, who needs rotator cuff surgery on his serving shoulder, had lost in the first round of qualifying at this year's Australian Open and had won only nine matches all year. He got his wild card at Wimbledon because he had thrice reached the final there and lost. "I don't want to get another plate; I already have three plates," Ivanisevic said before this year's final, referring to the silver plate that goes to the runner-up. "If some angel comes tonight in my dreams and say, 'O.K., Goran, you going to win Wimbledon tomorrow, but you not able to touch the racket ever again in your life,' I say, 'O.K., I take that.' "

Who could blame him? Blessed with an effortless bomb of a serve, Ivanisevic seemed destined to finish his career as one of sport's lovable losers, a man who could make tennis look both so easy and so hard. Of his three defeats in the Wimbledon final—one to Andre Agassi and two to Sampras—he said early in the fortnight, "I'm not psychologist, you know. I am mature, but sometimes I am not."

The Ivanisevic who showed up at Wimbledon this year, though, was a toned-down version. During the final he kept himself under control most of the time. Once, when he was serving in the fourth set and a double fault was called, he erupted, swearing, throwing his racket and kicking the net. He argued with chair umpire Jorge Diaz and after the match called one linesperson ugly and said another one looked like a faggot. "But then I say, 'O.K., you said enough, you got everything out,' " Ivanisevic said afterward. " 'This is final, keep cool.' Maybe five years ago, I lose four or five games, and then I'm finished."

Not this year. Lashing his psyche to the deck in the fifth set, Ivanisevic pressured Rafter by holding serve easily until, in the 15th game, Rafter cracked. He served up a 79-mph softball and watched helplessly as Ivanisevic whipped a forehand past him for the crucial break. "Everyone thought, He hadn't done anything in Grand Slams for the last few years," the 28-year-old Rafter said following the final. "Why would anybody give him any hope of coming back and doing what he's done?"

Television programmers on both sides of the pond weren't pleased that Sunday's men's final was moved to Monday, and the thick-witted response by the All England Club to this year's wet final weekend again raised cries in favor of placing a dome over Centre Court. Nothing should put more pressure on the brains at SW 19 than Tim Henman's loss to Ivanisevic in the semifinals. On Friday, with Henman playing masterfully and up two sets to one and 2-1 in the fourth set, rain caused the suspension of play at 6:18 p.m. "I couldn't hurt him in any way," Ivanisevic said on Sunday.

Shortly after 8 p.m., the All England Club postponed the rest of the match until Saturday, even though the weather had cleared and there was enough light to play about 30 more minutes. Then, instead of heeding forecasters who said there would be dry weather early on Saturday, Wimbledon scheduled the match to resume at 1 p.m. That start was washed out, and play didn't resume until 5:37. By then Ivanisevic had screwed his head back on. He won the fourth set in a tiebreaker and led the fifth set 3-2 when more rain pushed play to Sunday. When three All England Club officials were asked at a Saturday night press conference why they hadn't started that morning, none responded for 10 seconds. Referee Alan Mills grew red in the face and blurted, "Good question."

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