Ivanisevic the joker still has some aces left
By Mark Hodgkinson
There were several occasions during our conversation when it sounded as though Goran Ivanisevic had just been watching old tapes of Teletubbies, the children's television programme with all the gibberish and silliness that provided him with inspiration during the 2001 Wimbledon fortnight. Here was Ivanisevic in cheerful, surreal, and ever so slightly demented mood.
And which Goran was this talking anyway? How were the Split personalities in that eccentric head of his, Good Goran, Bad Goran and Emergency Goran? "The three Gorans still exist, for sure they still exist," he said. "They are best friends and they are worst enemies. It depends on the day. They are not like before - it is slightly more relaxed. They have all achieved what they wanted to achieve. But they still have their misunderstandings, and they have to negotiate which way it will be like in my head that day. They still have their fights."
Ivanisevic was as sharp, wickedly funny, self-deprecating, and honest as you would have expected, but it was just that he was a little more outlandish and enthusiastic than normal. It could well have been Teletubbies-driven, but perhaps not. Retirement has certainly not blunted and dulled the Croatian. In fact, it has almost certainly had quite the opposite effect, with Ivanisevic explaining how he is planning to come out of retirement as a fully-fit and well-primed fourth member of his country's Davis Cup team for the final in December.
It all sounds rather improbable, this notion that Ivanisevic may play an active role in the final against Slovakia in Bratislava. The 34-year-old said that he could feature in the doubles rubber and, if the tie is already decided, in one of the dead singles rubbers. "If you had put some money at the start of the season on Croatia and Slovakia being in the Davis Cup final, and also that I would be in the team for the final, I think that you would be a very rich man, that you would have made millions. The odds were huge," said Ivanisevic, who returned to proper training a fortnight ago.
But then again, Ivanisevic has always had a great talent for achieving the silly and improbable. When he won Wimbledon in 2001 he did so as a wild card with a dodgy shoulder, a triple-figure ranking and the knowledge that most observers had predicted at the start of the tournament that he would do well to even reach the second week of the grasscourt grand slam.
Ivanisevic thought that he had ended his career at the highest level when he was defeated in the third round of last year's Wimbledon and then cavorted around the lawns in his red-and-white checked Croatian football shirt. It was the "crazy exit" he had promised.
And even before that goodbye in south-west London, he had been struggling around the world with a series of ailments, not least the recurring shoulder injury that had hampered his ability to hit that gargantuan left-handed service action of his. The last time he played at anything near full capacity was probably Wimbledon four years ago. And even then he had that damned shoulder to deal with.
And yet Ivanisevic still believes that he could be a force in a Croatian team including Ivan Ljubicic, Mario Ancic (otherwise known as "Baby Goran") and Ivo Karlovic. Ivanisevic feels he deserves a chance to play with the younger men.
"The Davis Cup final is the only thing that could have brought me out of retirement. I have always had a dream that I would be in the Davis Cup final and help win it for Croatia. That would be a big, big thing for me, a real dream for me. I know that I am still good enough to play doubles in a Davis Cup final," he said.
"I helped in the semi-final against Russia. To be honest, I can't say what exactly my role was. I had a lot of roles. I was the assistant coach, the ball boy, the sparring partner, the guy for the atmosphere, the cheerleader. I don't know, there were too many roles for me, and hopefully in the final I will have another role as the fourth guy in the team. I am good for the team. It can get a bit serious without me, and I help to keep it fun. But it makes me really nervous now just thinking about getting the chance to play in a Davis Cup final."
Ivanisevic is not exactly in the best shape of his life. He confessed that he spent much of the summer lounging and luxuriating on his boat, and may well have been on his way to developing a half-decent beer belly. "Yes, I was drinking beer on the boat, eating lots, and doing a bit of fishing and taking a little swim every now and then. I wasn't doing anything. So I think I started to get a bit fat. I put my body into a bad shape. I was on my boat for two months and I didn't even touch my racquet, I didn't even make two steps," he said.
"I want to be fit and ready to play, and then who knows. I don't want to go there just to sit there and be the fourth guy with a stomach. I need to know in my mind that I'm there if they need me," said Ivanisevic. He has kept his racquet skills ticking over by playing on the Champions (seniors) tour against John McEnroe and the other old swingers.
It was a shock to his boat-softened body when he started out on the physical regime that will hopefully have him slimmed and ready for Bratislava. "The first time I went running and went to the gym, I couldn't get off the bed again for about three days. Oh my God, I was so sore and all the muscles in my body were aching. I'm still pretty slow and the body is a little stiff and it is still the same old story with my shoulder," Ivanisevic said.
Ivanisevic provided some exceptional plot-lines on the way to his Wimbledon triumph. As well as the reliance on Teletubbies, he ate the same meal at the same table of the same restaurant for a fortnight. It was remarkable that not just his suspect shoulder, but also his digestive system, held up for the tournament, culminating in that glorious third Monday when he defeated Australian Pat Rafter. On his return to his home town of Split, Ivanisevic did a striptease in front of his delirious public.
"Whatever happens in the Davis Cup final, Wimbledon will still be the most beautiful moment in my career. By far," he said. "Every time I think about Wimbledon I think about the way I won, how I won, why I won, and I still don't know how or why, but who cares? I won." If Ivanisevic had lost that Wimbledon final, he said that his life would be very different now. He would not be comfortable with his career or whether he had made the most of his talents. "I think if I had lost that match, my fourth final, I would have had to move to the North Pole, or maybe I would have killed myself by hanging myself off some bridge. So I don't like to think about it too much and what would have happened if I had lost. Sometimes I start to think about it and then almost straight away I have to stop," he said.
There have been dark whispers and rumours circulating in Croatia since the summer that Ivanisevic was on the verge of bankruptcy, that he had lost most of his money on bad investments in the construction industry. Not so, said Ivanisevic, who strongly denied that he has been forced to play on the seniors tour to avoid destitution. He did admit, however, that he lost a substantial amount of money on some of his investments.
Away from tennis, there is plenty in Ivanisevic's life. He has been appointed the vice-president of Croatia's Olympic association, wants to know more about business, and has a two-year-old daughter, Amber-Maria, who he calls his "little vampire" on account of the fact that she often wakes him up five to six times a night. "I have to be a good father to my daughter. That takes a lot of time and energy. She needs a lot of attention," Ivanisevic said.
Ivanisevic appreciates his life membership of the All England Club, a purple-and-green tie that allows him to return there and "drink tea" whenever he pleases. "It is really nice that the people in England still remember what I did at Wimbledon. I think I had a special relationship with English crowds even before I won. And England enjoyed the way I won Wimbledon, that I showed that I was a bit temperamental. I think that English people liked that because people in England are temperamental too," he said.
And just to seal his Anglophile tendencies, Ivanisevic revealed that he now supports an English football team, West Bromwich Albion. He was introduced to Albion by an English PR on the seniors tour, and now even has a replica shirt with his name on the back.
"They are not doing that well, but that is okay. You have to support a team when they don't do well. It's easy to support Chelsea, with a guy who puts in a lot of money and if he sees a player he wants to buy, he buys, even if he doesn't need him. It doesn't matter to me if they are in the Premiership or not. I am the same for life, I don't change my team," said Ivanisevic.
Ivanisevic recalled last year's struggle against relegation with affection. "Last year was very dramatic," he said. "My life is very dramatic so I must support a dramatic football team as well. I can't be normal, nothing is normal with me. But it's good that way. Not being normal means that you have so much more fun in life."