Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Echoes of Goran

I took my lunch hour yesterday to coincide with the conclusion of the rain-delayed US Open, and was surprised to see David Duval in the mix. At one point, with three holes to play, he was just one off the lead. Duval and his wrap-around sunglasses held prodigy status back in the day, stopping a mere half-step below Tiger's burgeoning legend. At one point, he shot a rare 59 and set the golf world abuzz. Then his back gave out, or something, and he disappeared for a few years. I don't really know. Shit happens.

Anyway, Duval didn't win. But for a while, his efforts echoed those of another downtrodden athlete: the Croatian tennis player Goran Ivanisevic. In 2001, without a Grand Slam title to his name and in the last gasp of his career, Goran earned a wild card berth in Wimbledon. The stunning fortnight that followed saw him advance through a field of top contenders and reach the Championship match. As with yesterday's Open, rain had forced the final action to Monday.

Ivanisevic was a character, to put it mildly. I remember hating him as a kid, mostly because he carried himself with extreme arrogance and played the part of a volatile playboy. He was the biggest server of his time, and still holds the record for most aces in a year. In 1994, he reached #2 in the world behind Pete Sampras, but until 2001 he never won a Grand Slam. He did reach the Wimbledon final on three occasions, but Goran was known as a choke artist when the moment got too big, and he couldn't shed that image in London.

What I didn't realize, as a child, was that Goran's eccentric behavior, including his frequent jokes and temper tantrums (he was known for smashing rackets on the court), masked a person at war with himself. Amid the confrontations with umpires, the impromptu dances, the extended self-reprimands, the open-arm appeals to God and the booming serves stood a young man coming to terms with the lonely isolation of tennis. There was a healthy egotism involved, yes, but also insecurity, and it was all contained within the defiant mold of a very free spirit.

In the summer of 2001, I was better able to appreciate his quirks. I'd just graduated high school, and in the first weeks of June I'd been denied a raise at my golf course maintenance job. I quit in anger, and decided to drive to Ocean City, Maryland with my friend Kyle and surprise my vacationing family. My stepfather was furious about me running out on the job I'd held for three summers, and would barely talk to me, and all the strife and nerves of my imminent trip to college placed me in a mindset conducive to Goran-mania. He seemed to embody the anger, excitement, fear, and rebellion I felt in myself.

By then, he'd faded to 125th place in the world. Injuries that would end his career in the very near future had already hindered his ability, and he only merited a wild card to Wimbledon based on his three prior appearances in the finals. As his improbable march through the draw played out, there was the very distinct sense that this would be Crazy Goran's final chance at a Grand Slam. It was his best surface, his whipping serve was in top form, and a young hopeful named Roger Federer had taken Pete Sampras down in the fourth round, opening up the draw. When Goran triumphed over local favorite Tim Henman in the semi-finals, in front of a highly partisan crowd, his march began to seem like destiny, if destiny were a time bomb.

To get a better sense of Goran's personality, it helps to read his famous quotes. Here are some of my favorites. For this section, I've stood on the shoulders of Wikipedia.

*"The trouble with me is that every match I play against five opponents: umpire, crowd, ball boys, court, and myself."

*"I think it's interesting, you have three movies in one match: horror, comedy, drama. It's fun. I enjoy it. I am like that. I don't like to change. And if I could choose, I would be the same again. Just me, and I like who I am."

*"In every game I play there are three players in me that could surface anytime, Good Goran, Bad Goran, Crazy Goran! They can all serve aces."

*"I'll go kill myself." (after losing the Wimbledon 1998 final against Pete Sampras)

*"I have so many runner-up cups that I am thinking of starting my own tea shop."

*"I woke up at 2 and went back to sleep at 3, I woke at 4 and went back to sleep. At 5, when I next woke, the Teletubbies were on TV, so I thought it must be time to get up." (on his night's sleep before the 2001 Final)

When Wimbledon stretches to an extra day, they call it "People's Monday," and give cheaper tickets out to a more general audience. This meant that Centre Court was packed with Croatians and Australians (Goran's opponent was Patrick Rafter), two nationalities not known for demure behavior. Instead of the usual stuffy British audience, the backdrop of this championship was replete with passionate, ecstatic fans jumping in the aisles and waving giant flags.

The chair umpire had a miserable time keeping everyone quiet, and after a while he mostly gave up, settling for something resembling calm in the moment before a serve. Appropriately, the match stretched to five sets, elongating and augmenting the tension. As the players battled in the fifth, Goran held himself together in moments where he'd faltered in the past. Finally, at 7-all, he broke the Australian with a wicked cross-court forehand and gave himself a chance to serve for the match. On Championship Point, when Rafter's return hit the net, Goran collapsed to the grass and the stadium erupted. The wild lefty had conquered Wimbledon.

And he did so without altering his personality, other than some moderate exhortations to keep his temper and emotions in check. Someone with Goran's disposition was never destined to be a great champion; he lacked the single-minded focus of a Sampras or Federer. But the indelible marks of character propelled him on a journey that's every bit as intriguing, and for it to culminate in a championship is a real-life happy ending.

Inuries after that title kept him from returning to the upper echelons of the game, and this final quote encapsulates the humor, pathos, and narrative arc of Goran Ivanisevic better than any other:

"I said to God, 'If I win this one, I don't care if I ever play again.' I guess he was listening."

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