- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2001

Goran Ivanisevic got paroled from Second Place Prison yesterday. For an athlete, there are few worse places to be. As a famous Olympian once put it: "You're a loser if you're second. But if you're third, it's, 'Oh, you got third.' You didn't lose, you just got third."

Ivanisevic had the ball and chain removed from his bony ankle after beating Pat Rafter in five sets for the Wimbledon title. Just like that, he went from a player who had reached the final three times without winning falling in '92 to Andre Agassi, and in '94 and '98 to Pete Sampras to, yes, a champion, the champion of the biggest tennis tournament of them all.

"I don't know if I'm going to wake up and [have] somebody tell me I didn't win Wimbledon again," he told the Centre Court crowd in semi-disbelief. "I dream of this all my life."

Ivanisevic can sleep well now. He's no longer just "The Man of 1,000 Aces," a guy with a fearsome serve that could take him only so far. He's a winner with a capital 'W' and he's holding the Trophy That Answers All Questions.

We've explored this theme call it "Bridesmaid

Revisited" a lot the past few years. In the recent NHL finals, you may recall, one of the stories behind the story was Ray Bourque's quest for the Stanley Cup. Twice a runner-up, never a champ, Bourque would have considered his 22-year, honor-strewn career incomplete if his name weren't engraved on the Cup. So he and the Colorado Avalanche went out and slew the New Jersey Devils, after which he, with great fanfare, retired (even though he probably had several more high-level seasons in him).

Then there was the fourth round of the U.S. Open last month, in particular the putrid putting on the 18th green by Retief Goosen, Stewart Cink and Mark Brooks. Soon enough, TV was showing footage of Ed Sneed ('79 Masters), Scott Hoch ('89 Masters) and Doug Sanders ('70 British Open) blowing major championships by missing short putts and wondering if Goosen, who had botched a 20-incher, might be preparing to join their woeful ranks.

Amazingly, though, he rebounded to outplay the more battle-tested Brooks in the playoff. Good thing, too, because finishing second, while lucrative, figured to offer him little comfort in the decades ahead. I remember asking Sanders once about his slip-up at St. Andrews, and he said, "I don't think about it very much. Sometimes I go as much as five minutes without even thinking about it.

"I'm kidding," he went on. "But I wish I had [sunk that putt], because it would make it nicer to walk on the first tee. What did Orville Moody win, one tournament? [But for him] they say, 'Now coming to the tee, the former U.S. Open champion.' And whenever I walk on the tee, they say, 'Here's a guy who won 20 championships.' "

And let's not forget the Los Angeles Lakers, who just captured their seventh NBA title in the last 22 years. For the longest time, the Lakers were synonymous with second place. They lost in the finals, usually to the Boston Celtics, seven out of nine seasons from '62 to '70. Understandably, this gnawed at Jerry West, their Hall of Fame shooting guard.

"I think probably the toughest thing was the soul-searching afterward," he once told me. "I was probably my own worst enemy. My reaction to losses was that I tended to blame myself, that I didn't do more, and that's really not a very good way to play any kind of game. But I always thought I had more to give. I think when the [next] season started, you sort of forget about it, but it took you a long damn time to forget it."

Some might consider it ironic that West, who couldn't buy a championship in the '60s, is the brains behind the current Lakers dynasty. He's the guy who wheeled and dealed to get Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, who cleared the cap space to sign Shaquille O'Neal. A case of the scales finally balancing? Perhaps. Or maybe his heartbreak as a player drove him to be the most successful general manager of his generation. I'm reminded of the words of Lanny Bassham, who won a silver medal for the U.S. and four looong years later a gold in rifle shooting at the Olympics. "It's not exciting [finishing second]," he said, "but it is motivating."

Goran Ivanisevic knows a little about that. No one gave him a chance when he showed up at Wimbledon a fortnight ago. He was old (29), in obvious decline and needed a special invite to avoid having to qualify for the tournament. Even when he reached the final, surviving a three-day, rain-swept ordeal with local favorite Tim Henman, it was hard not to think of him as a three-time loser whose luck, surely, had run out.

But here he stands, the ruler of All Things Grass. "I want[ed] to win so bad," he said afterward knowing, better than anyone in the championships, what the alternative would mean.

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