Battling his inner demons and with the hopes of 4 million countrymen resting on his shoulders, Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia won the men's singles final at Wimbledon Monday after a thrilling five-set battle with Australia's Patrick Rafter.
Playing before a raucous crowd of flag-waving Aussies and Croats — who cheered on their favorite sons in only the second Monday Wimbledon final in history — the 29-year-old Ivanisevic pulled out a three-hour victory by a score of 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7.
"I don’t know what to say," said the 125th-ranked Ivanisevic, who thanked the All England Club for giving him a wild-card entry to the tournament. He became only the second unseeded player in Wimbledon history to win. Boris Becker did it in 1985.
The capacity crowd witnessed an epic tug-of-war between the temperamental Croat — who had finished runner-up three times in 14 appearances — and his 28-year-old opponent, the elegant Rafter, who also was trying to stake his first claim to the coveted trophy.
Ivanisevic contended with his own faulty game, tallying 30 unforced errors and 16 double-faults — including three double-faults in the crucial 16th game of the fifth set. The calmer, cooler Rafter, a two-time U.S. Open champion, fought with a steely determination, trying to will back Ivanisevic’s trademark power serves, often to no avail. But when he did — in the second and fourth sets — it was crucial, as he rattled Ivanisevic in the process.
The flag-waving, multilingual crowd came to the rescue of both players, turning the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon into a romper-room circus, with the atmosphere of a rugby match. Fighting to hold serve in what would be the final game of the final set, down 15-30, Ivanisevic blasted a second-serve ace to tie the score at 30-30. Another ace — he had 27 in all — gave Ivanisevic a championship point, but he quickly lost it on yet another double fault.
"I thought, not again, I want to win so badly," he said of the nail-biter that was unfolding, echoing some of his matches in previous years. But Ivanisevic shook it off and returned with yet another 120-mph serve down the middle that Rafter could not return. Then he double-faulted again. Then an unforced error by Rafter gave him another match point, which he then lost.
"The racquet felt 50 pounds heavier," Ivanisevic said, comparing it to the three-day semifinal match he played against Tim Henmen of Great Britain. "This has been my dream all my life, to serve for the match. I came here and no one talked about me, and now I am holding the trophy. This is too good."
He finally won the championship on his fourth match point when Rafter returned a serve into the net. Ivanisevic collapsed on Centre Court, falling on his back and rolling on his stomach before rising to embrace his opponent, who had nothing but praise for him afterward.
"I have to say I was one who discounted Goran, thinking he was done," Rafter said after the match.
Then Ivanisevic, his eyes filled with tears, ran into the stands and hugged his father.
Ivanisevic dedicated the victory to former NBA player Drazan Petrovic, his close friend who died in a car accident in 1993.
And he thanked his father.
"I was three times a loser here, so I have to thank my father," Ivanisevic said. "His heart would definitely have exploded if I had not won."