Wimbledon’s magical Monday stands test of time
Chris Harris @chrisharris1975
Arise, Sir Timothy Henman.
Don’t laugh. After all, those words would not have seemed so far-fetched had the former British No 1 grasped his finest opportunity to secure the grand-slam title that eluded him throughout his career.
It is ten years since Henman gazed across the Centre Court net with just two points between him and his first Wimbledon final.
A chance to claim the daddy of all tennis titles, the first Brit to do so since that popular sports clothing manufacturer, Fred Perry, who apparently used to play the game too.
The Earth would still be spinning on its axis if Henman had held his nerve a decade ago but the tennis world would be subtly, and strangely, different.
Just imagine: kids turning their back on Fred’s polo shirts to don Henman regalia while Andy Murray is written off as an exciting talent who just needs “the mental strength of Henman” to get over the line in the slams.
If only, if only, if only.
If only the rain hadn’t fallen when Tim was in the ascendancy, two sets to one up and marching towards a famous victory.
If only Wimbledon had installed a roof over Centre Court in the Nineties, not the Noughties.
If only Lady Luck had smiled on the man they called “Tiger” then our nation would not have been brought to its knees.
What a tragedy for Tim, for tennis, nay, for everyone.
What utter tosh.
Let’s get a few things clear: first, don’t dwell on how the rain derailed Henman in the 2001 semi-finals because bad light rescued him when Todd Martin had the British No 1 on the ropes in the fourth round.
Second, if Henman had graced the final there is every chance that Pat Rafter – a class act and fierce competitor who had just seen off Andre Agassi – would have been too strong.
And most importantly of all, if Henman had got through in 2001 then the All England Club would have been deprived of arguably its greatest, most heartwarming story, because the man who beat Henman was none other than Goran Ivanišević. And who needs Tiger Tim’s flimsy fist-pump when you’ve got Goran’s heart on his sleeve?
Ivanišević recovered to beat Henman in five sets and then overcame Rafter 6-3 3-6 6-3 2-6 9-7 to lift the trophy. Those are the bare facts but, of course, there is so much more to it than that.
So much, indeed, that the 2001 final deserves to be lauded as the finest in Wimbledon’s illustrious history.
Aside from everything else, the match was a classic, a breathless contest that ebbed and flowed for three glorious hours.
Ivanišević was quickly into his stride and took the first set as Rafter struggled for consistency. The Aussie soon clicked and deservedly drew level before Ivanišević regained the initiative to stand one set from glory.
At that point, the fatigue of his three-day semi-final against Henman was forgotten. “You don’t feel pain, you don’t feel tired, you are just thinking ‘one more set – is it finally going to happen?’” Ivanišević said later. “But knowing me I have to make it tough for myself.”
He did. Foot-faulting as he served to save the fourth set, Ivanišević threw his racket to the ground and jeers rang out around Centre Court as he remonstrated with the umpire.
It was futile. Rafter had forced a fifth set and the smart money was on the man with the momentum.
But Ivanišević regrouped and an epic final set unfolded. Rafter blinked first, dropping his serve in the 15th game to leave Ivanišević serving for the championship.
Even then the Croat looked capable of crumbling and he forged two match points only to squander both with double faults. A third came and went thanks to a nerveless lob from Rafter but the unbearable tension finally lifted when the Australian netted a forehand to give Ivanišević victory on his fourth match point.
No one would deny that it was a classic encounter but, you might reasonably enquire, so what? Wimbledon history is littered with wonderful finals.
Two of the last three are right up there for starters: Rafael Nadal winning 9-7 in the fifth set in 2008 to end Roger Federer’s run of five straight titles and the Swiss’s astonishing 16-14 final set victory over Andy Roddick to reclaim his crown 12 months later.
Those with a slightly longer memory and a sense of history will point to Bjorn Borg’s 1980 triumph over John McEnroe, a contest immortalised by a fourth-set tie-break won 18-16 by the American.
Given the competition, what elevates the 2001 showpiece above all others?
It’s true that, in the grand scheme of things, Ivanišević and Rafter exist on a lower sporting plane than Borg, McEnroe, Federer and Nadal (if not Roddick). And yet their contest leaves all others in the shade because it contained ingredients that gave the final a flavour it had never previously enjoyed – and possibly never will again.
The term ‘back story’ can elicit a weary sigh these days because it’s invariably attached to the latest rags-to-riches no-mark who briefly grabs the nation’s attention on an ITV talent show. But Ivanišević’s ‘journey’ was a compelling one.
Forget Henman’s trials and tribulations, here was a man who had already played in three Wimbledon finals and lost them all. Ivanišević had to watch Agassi cry all over the trophy in 1992 and looked on as a grinning Pete Sampras posed for the snappers in 1994 and 1998. By 2001, nine years after his first Wimbledon showpiece, Ivanišević’s chance had surely gone.
His ranking only reinforced that view. Riddled with injuries and struggling for any kind of form, Ivanišević had dropped like a stone to No 125 on the world list. He had barely won a match, let alone a tournament, since his previous appearance at the All England Club, and was expected to be little more than an intriguing sideshow after accepting a wild card into the tournament.
Ivanišević’s status was so low he spent the fortnight in the also-rans’ locker room, only mixing with the elite once he had lifted the trophy. The prospect of a wild card winning Wimbledon was pretty much unthinkable.
This year’s closest equivalent is Arnaud Clement, but do you really think the Frenchman will see off Federer, Nadal et al? Of course he won’t.
So far, so astonishing. But Ivanišević’s story, and the tale of 2001, would not be as captivating if he had the personality and on-court demeanour of an automaton. He hasn’t. The Croat is one of the most complex, bewitching characters to wield a racket, a man who could lurch from exhilaration to exasperation in a microsecond.
Nadal is a fighter, Federer a metronome, but you never quite knew what you’d get with Ivanišević. He teetered between rapture and ruin, and never more so than in 2001.
Written off as a serious contender before a ball was served, the Croat made serene progress to the semi-finals with wins over Fredrik Jonsson, Carlos Moya, a young Roddick, Greg Rusedski and Marat Safin, then the US Open champion.
Ivanišević was as cool, calm and collected as he had ever been but that semi-final against Henman exposed his brittleness as well as his brilliance. He was close to despair after losing the third set to love in barely a quarter-of-an-hour but ‘Bad Goran’ – as Ivanišević labelled his wayward alter ego – was eventually forced back into his box by the rain reprieve and then the Croat’s comeback.
Nonetheless it was a reminder that Ivanišević was as volatile and combustible as ever and the final would bring out the best and worst in him too. He snapped at the end of the fourth set following that careless foot fault, his anguish a nod to the very real threat that his “bridesmaid” tag would not be shaken off after all.
As for the decisive 16th game of that tumultuous final set, well, it was a microcosm of Goran’s entire career. Flashes of genius to create a winning position followed closely by self-inflicted and potentially fatal wounds.
“I just said to myself, ‘don’t do anything stupid [in the final game]’, but that didn’t happen,” Ivanišević said later. “I tried to relax but I could not, I was too nervous. Some people when they are nervous hit slow, when I am nervous I hit hard.”
That partly explains the two double faults that extinguished his first two match points and, at that point, Ivanišević was on the precipice. His helpless fans willed him on, knowing they might be witnessing an implosion that could for ever haunt their fragile hero. Could he really stand a fourth final defeat?
Suddenly, redemption was his. Ivanišević, tearful and shaking with joy and relief, climbed the stand to embrace his father. That journey has become something of a cliché since Pat Cash started the trend way back in 1987 but you’d have needed a heart of stone not to be touched by those scenes of Croatian delight.
“I did not know what I was doing,” Ivanišević said later. “My legs took me that way so I followed with the rest of my body. It was a great, great moment.” It was also supremely watchable, an emotional sub-plot that added another layer to the 2001 experience.
The Croat’s vanquished opponent deserves a mention too. Rafter’s resilience and class dragged every last drop of energy and emotion from Ivanišević that July day, and his reaction to what must have been a numbing defeat warmed the heart.
A smiling Rafter embraced Ivanišević at the net, holding the champion up as the occasion threatened to overwhelm him. The Aussie deserved every roar of appreciation he got from the Centre Court crowd.
Ah yes, the crowd. If all of the above hasn’t convinced you that the 2001 final was Wimbledon’s finest, this should. The rain delays that pushed the tournament into a third week may have hampered Henman but they only enhanced the atmosphere and sense of occasion when the final eventually took place on the Monday.
Around 15,000 tickets were available on the door so if you loved tennis, Ivanišević or Rafter and were determined enough, you were in.
Excitable, vociferous fans swarmed into Centre Court, clasping flags and, in some cases, inflatable kangaroos. To say they livened up the old place is an understatement. This was proper shout-yourself-hoarse-between-points stuff.
Croats and Aussies tend not to be shrinking violets and they roared their favourites on, giving the All England Club the passionate, tribal nature of a football crowd without the animosity that usually pervades Premier League stadia. It was a far cry from the stuffed-shirt corporate brigade for whom entertainment is a Cliff Richard medley in the rain.
“It was the best atmosphere I have ever played in,” Ivanišević recalled later. “I saw the flags, I heard everybody singing, I was just so happy and I wanted to play as soon as possible. It helped me a lot.”
For all the drama of Federer’s recent finals with Nadal and Roddick, Centre Court has never crackled like it did on that Monday in 2001.
Ivanišević would be the first to admit that he is left in the shade by a parade of great Wimbledon champions but, ten years ago, there was a vacuum in SW19. Sampras had won seven of the previous eight titles but his era was drawing to a close.
The man who beat him in 2001 was a certain Swiss chap called Federer – a changing of the guard if you like. Federer would win six of the next eight championships but, at that moment in time, there was a window of opportunity. Henman did not capitalise; Ivanišević did.
By a quirk of my employer’s holiday rota I was fortunate enough to be in the press box to sample the atmosphere in 2001 and Ivanišević’s triumph remains the most thrilling piece of sporting theatre I’ve seen in the flesh. Watching the wild man with the wild card exorcise his demons will take some beating.
All the same, look out for Arnaud Clement. You never know.
If you enjoyed this, then check out Chris’ feature on the dynamic between football and Twitter