Goran Ivanisevic: The Wimbledon dream comes true

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Just when you thought the biggest tennis story of the year was the resurgence of Jennifer Capriati, along came "Ivo" (Goran Ivanisevic to the layperson).

The seemingly washed up veteran from Croatia showed us why we watch sports. It's not to witness the expected (Pete Sampras), it's to be stunned by the unexpected...in this case, the unlikeliest of major victories.

Somehow Ivanisevic captured that elusive Wimbledon title, one he'd been denied in three separate finals during a six-year span from 1992-98.

He wasn't even supposed to be at the 2001 fortnight, but was extended an invitation (wild card), due to the fact that he's Goran Ivanisevic and was a three-time runner-up at the world's most prestigious tennis event.

So how did he win it all?

Goran Ivanisevic
Goran Ivanisevic savours the moment as he holds on to the Wimbledon trophy.
(Photo by Empics)
I'm guessing his record 213 aces may have been a factor. He shattered his previous mark of 206 untouchables, despite battling a sore left shoulder, which had been one of the many factors in his recent swoon, a swoon that prompted tennis experts, and players alike, to leave him for dead -- tennis dead, that is.

But when you serve like Ivanisevic did (130-plus mph bombs) at the 2001 Wimbledon extravaganza and you can manage to break your opponent's serve every once in a while, you're going to be near impossible to beat, or in Goran's case, impossible to beat, as he rode his elephant gun serve into history.

Ivanisevic became a tennis star by unleashing laser-like serves in the 1990s. But his game appeared all but gone soon after being demoralized by the mighty Sampras in the 1998 Wimbledon final.

Since then, the long-time pro has battled problems with his form, as well as injuries, most notably a bad shoulder, his once-formidable left shoulder, which often requires hours of post-match icing.

It seemed like a tall order to ask the tall Croat to capture his first-ever Grand Slam event at the ripe old age of 29, considering he'd won just nine matches (9-11) this entire 2001 season heading into Wimbledon. You need to win seven straight matches to capture a Slam tournament, and when you enter the draw as a wild card, there's more than a good chance that you'll be the underdog in every one of your bouts.

But the Ivanisevic wild card came up aces.

With the exception of an opening-round match against Swede Fredrik Jonsson, Ivanisevic was the underdog in every outing during his remarkable run to greatness.

As recently as this past January, Ivanisevic performed in a Challenger tournament -- the tennis equivalent to Triple A baseball. He played at an event in Heilbronn, Germany, where he lost to Frenchman Michael Llodra in a low-profile final.

But by the time Wimbledon heated up, Ivanisevic seemed to be a man of destiny. He upset former world No. 1 Carlos Moya of Spain in the second round; stunned rising American star Andy Roddick in the third round; blew away fellow bomber Greg Rusedski of Great Britain in the fourth round; shocked reigning U.S. Open champ Marat Safin of Russia in the quarterfinals; and needed three days to sneak past sixth-seeded great English hope Tim Henman in the semifinals.

In a match that started on a Friday, Ivanisevic overcame the crowd-favorite Henman two days later because of rain that plagued the event on its second weekend.

Following a fifth straight surprise victory, Ivanisevic miraculously found himself in the final against arguably the sport's most popular player, Australia's two-time U.S. Open champion Patrick Rafter -- the fortnight's third seed.

Rafter, of course, was the big favorite to capture his first Wimbledon title, but no one told that to Ivanisevic.

The 2000 runner-up to Sampras, Rafter was hoping that Wimbledon 2001 would be his swan song, considering he himself has been plagued by injuries over the past few years and has hinted at retirement at the end of this season.

But in one of the greatest men's finals of all-time at the storied All England Club, Ivanisevic prevailed in five glorious sets, including a Wimbledon-record 16-game fifth.

Ivanisevic recorded the only break of the final set to secure an 8-7 edge, before closing out the match on-serve when Rafter harmlessly batted a blistering second serve into the net on an electric Centre Court.

Rafter was befuddled by 27 aces in the stunning setback.

The improbable victory made Ivanisevic fall to the worn-out grass of the "Old Green Lady," where he laid face-first in a pool of his own jubilant tears.

After trotting to the net to hug/console a distraught Rafter, Ivanisevic then charged into the crowd to hug his contingent, most notably his father, who was on hand to watch his son lose to Andre Agassi in the 1992 final and to Sampras in the 1994 and '98 championship matches.

Like so may others, I assumed I'd be talking and writing about Sampras, Capriati or Venus Williams at the conclusion of this past Wimbledon, but here we are, amazed at the inspiring run of a former star who picked himself up off the mat to shake up the world.

Out of nowhere, by virtue of the Wimbledon championship, Ivanisevic has earned himself a spot in the prestigious season-ending Tennis Masters Cup event in Sydney; charged up to 10th place in the ATP Champions Race; moved to No. 16 in the Singles Entry System (a.k.a. the world rankings); and eased into the seventh position among the tour's money leaders this year ($821,410), thanks to a first-place check of more than $700,000 at Wimbledon.

The eccentric lefty not only became the first-ever wild card to win a Grand Slam event, he joined former German great Boris Becker as one of only two unseeded players to capture the sport's biggest prize.

The towering Croat and Rafter battled in the first "People's Monday" final at Wimbledon since Stefan Edberg stopped Becker 13 years ago.

Ivanisevic, who came to London ranked 125th in the world, clearly benefited from Sampras' fourth-round loss to Roger Federer at the 2001 fortnight. The 14-year pro from Split came out of Sampras' top half of the draw, after Henman stopped Federer and Ivanisevic then dismissed Henman.

On Tuesday, Ivanisevic stripped down to his underwear as he was given a hero's welcome by 150,000 crazed fans in his hometown of Split.

"I expected something big, but I really did not expect something like this," Ivanisevic said as he disrobed.

Ivanisevic's heart-stopping victory over Rafter sent hundreds of people into the streets of Split.

The tennis star's family was swamped with phone calls and telegrams of support, with one coming from the Hague war crimes tribunal where nine Bosnian Croats await trial.

"We are the proudest people in the world," the nine said through one of their lawyers. "Thank you for the historic success in the name of the Croatian homeland."

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