- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2001

WIMBLEDON, England — Never has Wimbledon gone so wild.

One of the most delightful spates of insanity in the history of tennis descended on the All England Club yesterday. In front of a maniacally raucous crowd at Centre Court, supposedly spent Croatian Goran Ivanisevic became the first wild-card winner in the history of the Grand Slams, edging Australian Patrick Rafter for his first major title in an epic five-set thriller.

"I think I'm dreaming," the 29-year-old Ivanisevic said after surviving the longest fifth set in the history of the men's final at Wimbledon to best Rafter 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7. "This is so great to touch the trophy. I don't care if I ever win a match again. This is the end of the world."

Compared with the typically staid atmosphere at a Wimbledon final, it probably did seem that way to the stuffy All England Club stewards. Because weekend rain forced a Monday finish, club officials decided to open ticket sales to the general public for the final. The resulting crowd of 13,800 fans, many of whom began lining up Sunday night for their walk-up tickets, turned Centre Court into the international equivalent of Soldier Field.

Thousands of Aussies showed up with painted faces, inflatable kangaroos, flags and healthy lungs, serenading Rafter with "Waltzing Matilda" as he warmed up for the match. And most of the locals, who had hoped to be backing British semifinalist Tim Henman, immediately gravitated to the Croatian underdog, chanting "Goran, Goran, Goran" between points and drowning out the umpire's announcements. Even actor Jack Nicholson, sitting in the Royal Box, was swept along by the spirit of the moment, participating in the wave to the delight of the crowd.

"It was electric," the 28-year-old Rafter said of the atmosphere after his second straight heart-rending loss in the Wimbledon finals. "I don't know if Wimbledon's seen anything like it, and I don't know if they will again."

He could just as easily have used the same words to describe the quality of the tennis or the caliber of the fifth-set drama.

The first three sets went quickly, with one early break in each deciding the outcome. The fourth finally saw the first outburst from Ivanisevic, a 6-foot-4 stick of TNT notorious for his emotional meltdowns. Serving at 2-3 against a rare Rafter break opportunity, the huge-serving Croatian was called for a foot fault on an apparent ace. He glared at the line judge, later calling her "that ugly, ugly lady," and followed with another apparent ace up the center line that was immediately called wide by another linesman.

Ivanisevic snapped, throwing down his racket in disgust, kicking the net and berating the umpire. In vintage Ivanisevic form, the furious left-hander didn't win another game during the set. And when the fifth set began, most in attendance expected an extended self-destructive simmer from Ivanisevic to ruin his chances.

But just as Ivanisevic had for the fortnight, the player who came to Wimbledon ranked No. 125 in the world shocked the tennis community with his ability to regain his composure.

"I got a little crazy, you know," said Ivanisevic, who was still irked by the calls in his postmatch interview. "But this is final. I had to say to myself, 'OK, now this is finished. You have to calm down. This is your last chance. You going to win it. You just have to keep cool. You can't afford to, you know, be crazy in Wimbledon final.'"

The final set was a modern masterpiece. Both players held serve without facing a single break point through the first 14 games. Ivanisevic, who broke his own record for aces in the tournament with 211 over the fortnight, pounded out 27 aces in the final. His balky left shoulder, which forced him to the brink of retirement last year, needed only one mid-match rubdown. He was better than serviceable at the net; his suspect forehand volley held up under the pressure. And his ground strokes were typically erratic but brilliant when he needed them most.

Rafter, meanwhile, certainly didn't look like a player who needs a sabbatical at the end of the season. The two-time U.S. Open champion struggled with his first serve but compensated with the sport's best game at net, displaying his outrageously deft feel on touch volleys again and again.

But at 7-7, Rafter finally cracked, blowing a fairly routine backhand volley to give Ivanisevic an opening at 15-30. He then missed two consecutive first serves, and Ivanisevic responded by turning slower second serves into a pair of crushed forehand winners to cement the break.

Predictably, Ivanisevic's nerves arrived as he attempted to serve out the match. Ivanisevic lost in the finals in 1992, '94 and '98, and the ghosts of those losses came calling with the match riding on his mammoth serve. Four times Ivanisevic scrapped his way to match point. On his first two, he double-faulted with tears in his eyes, later saying his racket felt as if it weighed "one hundred kilos."

Proving his own mettle, Rafter erased the third match point with a lob over a hard-charging Ivanisevic.

But two 109-mph second serves finally doomed the scrambling Aussie.

Rafter scraped the first into the net off his backhand to give Ivanisevic his fourth match point. And providing a perfectly symmetrical end to Ivanisevic's run of failures in the finals, his fourth chance proved to be the charm. Rafter netted a forehand return to give Ivanisevic the title.

"This is what I was waiting all my life," said Ivanisevic, who fell face-forward onto the court in disbelief for several seconds before dashing into the stands to hug his father, Srdjan. "I was always second. The people respect me, but second place, you know, is not good enough. And finally I am a champion of Wimbledon. This is everything for me. You know, my dreams came true. Whatever I do in my life, wherever I go, I going to be always Wimbledon champion."

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