Goran Ivanisevic: The ultimate underdog who overcame heartbreak and won Wimbledon in dramatic style

Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia won the 2001 Wimbledon in the most dramatic circumstances as he became the first wild card in the history of the tournament to win the title.

Goran Ivanisevic lost three Wimbledon finals, but he got the wildcard and won the title on the fourth attempt. (Image credit: Wimbledon Twitter)

“A person, team, etc. who is weaker than others, and not expected to be successful.” That is the definition of an underdog. For ages, David beating Goliath became the ultimate success story when it came to sports. For one individual, he would redefine the term underdog and achieve a miracle in sports. In 2001, there was one individual who had arrived at his favorite tournament with plenty of heartbreak. He had lost three finals in 1992, 1994, and 1998. Two of those finals were five-set games.

Heading into the 2001 season, Goran Ivanisevic was not even sure of qualifying for Wimbledon. His rankings has tumbled after a run of poor form. He only made it to Wimbledon after he got a wildcard entry. A ‘wild card’ is a player included in the draw of a tennis event at the discretion of the tournament’s organising committee or organisation. This was as low as it got Goran Ivanisevic, a competent tennis player who had troubled many greats in that era. In the 90s, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, along with Boris Becker and Pat Rafter to a certain extent were dominating the world of Tennis. Ivanisevic was the proverbial bridesmaid in Tennis.

The backdrop of Goran Ivanisevic’s heartbreak

The left-handed Croat, born in the city of Split in the former Yugoslav Republic, had acquired a reputation of being one of the fastest servers in world tennis. His ability to hit aces and his tall six foot four inch frame made Goran Ivanisevic an intimidating proposition. His first good result came as a 18-year-old when he entered the quarterfinals of the 1989 Australian Open.

However, it was in Wimbledon where he would excel as a title contender. In 1992, his booming serve and volley game helped him reach the final. His opponent would be Andre Agassi, the American who never liked grass as a surface. After winning the first set in a tie-breaker, Goran Ivanisevic surprisingly lost the next two sets as Agassi’s return of serve proved to be magnificent. The Croatian bounced back by winning the fourth set 1-6. But, against all the odds, Agassi raised his game and won the set 6-4 to clinch his first and maiden Wimbledon title.

This would be the first heartbreak for Ivanisevic. Little did he know, there would be many more to come in the following years.

Goran Ivanisevic’s Wimbledon heartbreak part 2 and 3

In 1994, Ivanisevic had a dominant run, losing only one set until the fourth round. In the quarterfinals, he would beat Guy Forget and Boris Becker in straight sets. It looked his destiny would finally arrive. But, Pete Sampras was playing on a different level altogether. In a thorough display, Sampras blasted Ivanisevic 7-6, 7-6, 6-0 to win his second consecutive Wimbledon title.

Goran Ivanisevic would have to endure more heartbreaks. In 1998, he once again reached the final for the third time. As compared to 1994, Ivanisevic’s path would be thornier in Wimbledon. He was stretched to four sets in three out of his first four rounds. In the semi-final, he defeated Richard Krajicek in an epic match, with the final set going to 15-13. It was the most dramatic moment in the tournament. In the final, he encountered his nemesis Pete Sampras again.

The first two sets went to tiebreakers, with both Ivanisevic and Sampras sharing one. Sampras won the third set 6-4 only for Ivanisevic to take the match to the fifth by winning the fourth set 6-3. In the fifth set, Sampras was able to keep his calm and he won the fifth 6-2 to win his fifth Wimbledon title to level Bjorn Borg’s record.

Ivanisevic would describe this loss as his ‘hardest loss in his career.’ He openly wept after losing the match. Many wondered if Ivanisevic’s destiny included a Wimbledon title.

Losing motivation and bouncing back

After the 1998 loss, Ivanisevic struggled with form, motivation, and injuries. His ranking dropped to 125 and he was on the verge of retirement. However, in 2001, he was given a wild card to compete in Wimbledon. Before the tournament, Ivanisevic said, “The organizers decided to give me a wild card. Now, it is the time I have to prove I deserve it.” No one knew it at that time. But, Ivanisevic would go on to become the most famous wild card in the history of Tennis.

Ivanisevic had a mixed beginning in the 2001 Wimbledon tournament. He beat Fredrik Jonsson in straight sets. But, Ivanisevic faced tough tests against Carlos Moya and Andy Roddick but he overcame them both. After beating Greg Rusedski, Ivanisevic’s exuberant celebrations dominated Wimbledon.

The Croat defeated fourth-seed Marat Safin in four sets with two of them going into tie-breakers. In the semi-final against local favorite Tim Henman, Ivanisevic encountered his biggest threat. After winning the first set 5-7, Ivanisevic lost the second set on a tie-breaker and the third 6-0. It seemed Ivanisevic would be thwarted in his quest for a Wimbledon title yet again.

But, the rain gods intervened. The match extended to three days. Henman, clearly out of rhythm, lost the fourth set on a tie-breaker. Ivanisevic held his nerve and staged a dramatic recovery to win the final set 6-3 to reach the final for the fourth time.

The epic final for Goran Ivanisevic against Pat Rafter

The final of Wimbledon 2001 was played on Monday and Centre Court, along with Henman hill was packed. Both players, equally adept at serve and volley, traded blows. Ivanisevic and Rafter played their hearts out and the match went into the fifth set again.

At 7-7, Ivanisevic got the crucial break and he looked set to finally create history. At 40-30, he was one serve away from creating a miracle story. However, he double-faulted not once but twice. At one point, when Rafter’s backhand went wide, he prayed at the spot to ensure that he got the point to help him win. But, after three attempts, it was still a stalemate.

On the fourth attempt, Ivanisevic served down the line. Rafter’s return hit the net and Ivanisevic had secured history. The emotions and the joy Ivanisevic had was shared by millions of fans and tennis aficionados. The heartbreaks of 1992, 1994 and 1998 were all washed away in the most dramatic of circumstances.

When he spoke after raising the trophy, Ivanisevic’s emotion burst through. “I don’t know if someone is going to wake me up and tell me I haven’t won again. This was my dream all my life. I came here and nobody thought about me, but here I am holding the trophy,” Ivanisevic said.

Fairytales in the modern era is scarcely believable. But, Ivanisevic in 2001 redefined sporting fairytales in a big way. It once again cemented the old theory in life which is, “Anything is possible.”

Sportslumo Desk

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