When Goran Ivanisevic brought the Center Court house down on ‘People’s Monday’ in 2001 it was not only one of the most popular victories ever seen in Grand Slam tennis history, but also one of the most iconic moments in wider sport.
The big-serving Croat who through his buccaneering serve and volley playing style, and as much for wearing his heart and putting red-raw on show, had won a devoted army of fans in losing three previous Wimbledon singles finals.
When he lost to Andre Agassi in five sets in 1992 having earlier defeated ‘Pistol’ Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg, the disappointment was tempered by the anticipation there would be more chances at his favorite event – and that proved to be the case . There followed defeat to Sampras, then at the height of his powers, in the 1994 final in straight sets but the Croatian reached his highest ever career ranking of world No2 as a result.
However when Ivanisevic lost once more to the American in five thrilling sets in 1998 there were plenty of tears and a fearful realisation that perhaps his opportunities to win the one title that mattered more to him than all others had disappeared over the horizon. He was in danger of becoming the Jimmy White of tennis.
In the next three years the left-hander’s ranking plummeted, so much so that in the build-up to the 2001 Wimbledon Championships he was ranked No125 with no direct entry into the draw, and relied on a wildcard from the organisers for a place in the draw. In terms of odds you could get almost anything you wanted for him to win, but 250-1 was certainly available. He would do nothing of note, it seemed, and this was to be a mere swansong.
But then fate started to get involved and take a huge hand, and by the end of this tournament everyone was left thinking that only a direct meteorite hit on the Center Court could have denied Ivanisevic his prize. Qualifier Fredrik Jonsson was his first victim, and then came big guns in clay-courter Carlos Moya, Andy Roddick, Greg Rusedki and Marat Safin.
This brought Ivanisevic face to face with home hero Tim Henman, also on a quest for his own personal Holy Grail. And it was here that some greater power may have smiled down on Ivanisevic. Trailing by two sets to one and being outplayed, down came the rain. The semi-final ended up being played over three days, and with his momentum disrupted Henman could not recover it, and Ivanisevic was into a fourth final.
It is hard to pick a better men’s final than the one contested by Ivanisevic and Australia’s Pat Rafter. Perhaps the Roger Federer v Rafael Nadal epic of 2008 probably edges it. But the brilliant battle lasted three hours, and swung back and forth. Twice Ivanisevic led by a set. Twice Rafter, a two-time US Open winner, hit back.
And it all came down to a gripping final set, roared on by one of the most charged crowds ever to set foot on Center Court. The weather issues meant the final took place on what quickly became known as ‘People’s Monday’, with ordinary fans able to get tickets including many Croatians and Aussies. All fortnight we had seen Goran ripping off his shirt, flexing his muscles, and charging around the court. But at 8-7 up and serving for the title, we saw him praying after every point.
The first two match points were squandered with double faults. The third was seen off with a superb lob from Rafter. But on the fourth Ivanisevic saw the return hit the net, and collapsed on the grass. He remains the only player to win a slam men’s singles title as a wildcard.
Speaking to the BBC’s Sue Barker on court afterwards, Ivanisevic mustered: “I don’t know if this is a dream and that I am going to wake up and someone will tell me that I didn’t win Wimbledon again.
“To have served for the match…suddenly I had a match point out of nowhere, nobody was talking about me before the tournament and now I am holding this trophy.
“The support today…I was three times in the final before, but it was unbelievable today and thank you to everyone. I would like to thank my father, if I had lost again today I think his heart might have exploded so I had to be careful and thanks dad.”
And 20 years later in 2021, speaking on the occasion of being inducted into the tennis Hall of Fame in 2021, an emotional Ivanisevic said, “Croatia is a small country with a huge heart. We never stop believing. I had a lot of ups and downs, and I never stopped believing. For the first time in my life, I can say I am proud of myself.
“It was not easy to be my fan. It was frustrating, it was sad, probably a lot of people got divorced because of me. But one thing is for sure: it was entertaining to be my fan.
“I would like to thank the Wimbledon committee for giving me a wild card. I don’t know if they did a good job or not, or if they now regret it. But thank you guys, because if you didn’t give me a wild card, I wouldn’t be standing here. I think it was a good decision.”
Rafter, though clearly devastated as the best chance of a precious Wimbledon singles title eluded him, was generous on the day. And years later he said: “It was fate for him. And let’s say had I won the game, Goran would have been a case for the madhouse – and I would have been responsible for it!
“It’s okay with me. I won a couple of Grand Slam tournaments, so I’m fine. On the other hand, the selfish part wants the Wimbledon trophy. It would have been great. Goran showed nerves and if there had to be another winner, it was him.”