Originally created 07/09/01

Ivanisevic reaches final against Rafter



WIMBLEDON, England -- Goran Ivanisevic is playing with joy again, his smile as strong as his big serve, his celebrations as strange as the amazing comeback that made them possible.

A Wimbledon finalist who hits shots between his legs? A free spirit who sheds his shirt after victories while finely dressed lords and ladies swelter in the royal box? That's Ivanisevic.

A Wimbledon champion with a bum shoulder who needed a wild-card pass from officials just to get into the tournament? On Monday, that could be him, too.

There's no telling what might happen when Ivanisevic plays. And that means steady Patrick Rafter, favored in their final, could be in for a strange match.

"Never had so much fun in Wimbledon ever on the tennis court like I have here," the Croat said Sunday in broken English. "Even sometimes I enjoy to lose the point, which is stupid, but with me everything is different."

Ivanisevic, the only wild-card to reach the final since 1977, needed three days to finish his semifinal against Tim Henman, finally winning 7-5, 6-7 (6), 0-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 after just four games and 18 minutes of play Sunday.

Five of Ivanisevic's 14 serves Sunday went for aces, giving him 186 for his six matches. He needs 21 Monday to break his own Wimbledon record of 206 set in 1992 when he was runner-up to Andre Agassi. He also improved his return game during the past two days.

The 29-year-old lefty also lost in the 1994 and 1998 final to seven-time champion Pete Sampras, but his career plummeted when he encountered shoulder problems last year. He entered Wimbledon this year ranked 125th in the world.

"If some angel comes tonight in my dreams and say, 'OK, Goran you going to win Wimbledon tomorrow, but you not able to touch the racket ever again in your life,' I say, 'OK, I rather take that and then never play tennis again."'

Henman, trying to become the first Brit since Bunny Austin in 1938 to reach a Wimbledon men's final, led 2-1 in sets and 2-1 in the fourth Friday when play was suspended by darkness after a two-hour rain delay.

"I was sort of in the process of dismantling his game," said Henman, who showed little emotion after his loss. "He obviously gets a chance to regroup."

On Saturday, things got better for Ivanisevic, who forced a fifth set and led 3-2 before rain forced a second suspension after 52 minutes of play.

On Sunday, a rainy morning gave way to clear skies about a half hour before the match resumed.

"Today was match of nerves, nothing to do with tennis," Ivanisevic said. "Who's going to have more nerves and guts going to win the match."

Henman, who hails from Oxford, wasn't the only one who was disappointed when it ended. So were the fans who filled Henman Hill, where a huge video screen was set up inside the Wimbledon grounds. Others waiting in line to buy tickets for the final picked up their sleeping bags and left when they found out their countryman wouldn't be in it.

"To play with the type of support that I've had, it is what it's all about," Henman said. "That's why I'll make sure that I come back to do even better here."

He was in trouble from the start of the eighth game. He fell behind 15-40, giving Ivanisevic two break points. But he tied it at 40-40.

Then Henman double-faulted. He lost the game on the next point when he hit a low volley into the net off Ivanisevic's service return.

The game's toughest server when he's on, Ivanisevic merely had to hold his serve to win. But Henman saved one match point, leaving the score at deuce.

Then Ivanisevic fired his 36th ace, coming after a fault, before Henman's final service return went out. Ivanisevic fell on his back in glee but kept his shirt on. He had flung it into the crowd in two previous wins.

This Wimbledon final may be Rafter's last. The 28-year-old Australian, who underwent shoulder surgery in October 1999, plans to take six months after this year to assess his future.

He's already won two U.S. Open championships and had a chance to win Wimbledon last year, but lost in the final to Sampras.

This year, he was two points from defeat in his third straight Wimbledon semifinal against Agassi, but came back for an 8-6 win in the fifth set.

He figures his chances to win it all are better this year.

"I guess you feel like you're more of a contender now," Rafter said. "That's always a nice feeling going into the final."

Considering how far Ivanisevic has come, he'd hate to fall short and tie Ken Rosewall for most Wimbledon finals without a championship.

Grinning slyly once more, he called Rafter a "good friend of mine" and suggested that, since his buddy might retire, Wimbledon might be better off with him as champion.

"How he going to come to defend his title," Ivanisevic said. "So it's better that I win, you know. I am available next year. Nothing better to do, you know?"