WIMBLEDON, England -- Goran Ivanisevic began to cry, his fragile psyche frayed by three hours of harrowing tennis and a decade of frustration at Wimbledon.
He kissed the ball, crossed himself and shook his arm trying to relax. But twice he double-faulted one point from victory, too nervous to put his serve in play.
As Ivanisevic's duel with Pat Rafter reached its climax, each point brought a deafening roar from the most boisterous crowd to attend a Wimbledon final. Finally, on the fourth championship point, Ivanisevic slapped a service winner and the title was his.
The popular Croat fell in a heap in disbelief and rolled over, his face buried in the Centre Court lawn that bedeviled him for so long. In a match likely to rank with the most memorable in Grand Slam history, three-time runner-up Ivanisevic finally won Wimbledon on Monday, outlasting Rafter 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7.
"I think I'm dreaming," he said. "Somebody is going to wake me up and tell me, 'Man, you didn't win."'
With seven-time champion Pete Sampras sidelined by a fourth-round upset, Ivanisevic emerged as an improbable successor. The tournament was his 48th major event, the most ever for a first-time Grand Slam champion, and he became the first wild card to win a major men's title.
"This is what I was waiting all my life," the 29-year-old said.
Ivanisevic speaks in amusingly mangled English, his head-spinning self-analysis and rich baritone enhancing the comedic effect. But there was nothing funny about his defeats in the 1992, 1994 and 1998 finals.
Hampered by a sore shoulder that will require surgery at the end of the year, he came to this year's tournament with his career in an 18-month freefall. He needed a wild-card invitation because his ranking had tumbled to 125th.
But his big serve blossoms on grass, his favorite surface. He won Wimbledon on his 14th try, and he did it before a crowd of 13,370 that rocked the cathedral of tennis.
Because rain washed out most of Saturday's schedule, the men's final began on a Monday for the first time since 1922. Finals are typically sold out in advance, but 10,000 tickets went on sale 2 1/2 hours before the match.
As the result, the stands were filled with a younger, noisier crowd than usual, with many fans likely attending Wimbledon for the first time. They sang, chanted, cheered double-faults and turned Centre Court into a kaleidoscope of flags, inflated kangaroos, face paint and clown hats.
For once, the only suits were in the royal box.
"I don't know if Wimbledon has seen anything like it," Rafter said. "I don't know if they will again. It was electric."
"So many Australian fans and Croatians, like a football match," Ivanisevic said. "The crowd was just too good."
The atmosphere was similar when rain forced Wimbledon to play on the middle Sunday in 1991 and 1997, but the staid tournament had never staged a final like this.
Support for the two players was even, just like the match. They played the longest fifth set of any final, dating back to 1877.
"It was the greatest final I've ever been a part of," said NBC commentator John McEnroe, whose five-set loss to Bjorn Borg in 1980 is considered by many the best final of the modern era.
"It was a very tight match," agreed Rafter, who lost to Sampras in last year's final. "This time hurts a little bit more than last time, that's for sure."
The 28-year-old Australian plans a six-month break at the end of this year and may retire. In perhaps his last bid for a Wimbledon title, he fell behind 3-0 and looked nervous doing it.
But Rafter soon settled down, and when he broke for a 2-0 lead in the second set, the stands became a sea of red, white and blue Aussie flags.
Every point found at least one player at the net. There were no baseline exchanges and few rallies of more than four shots.
But the stakes, atmosphere and swings in momentum made each point exciting nonetheless. Cheers at times drowned out the chair umpire's requests for "quiet, please."
Ivanisevic briefly came unhinged in the fourth set. Facing a break point, he hit an apparent service winner, but a lineswoman cited him for a foot fault, the only one of the match.
"Nooooooo!" he screamed.
He thought his next serve was an ace and skipped in glee before realizing it had been called wide - a double-fault that gave the game to Rafter. Ivanisevic threw his racket and kicked the net, then argued in vain with the chair umpire.
"I got little crazy," he admitted.
In the past, such situations have unraveled his game and cost him matches. This time he quickly calmed down.
"I just kept my mind," he said. "I had to. You can't afford to be crazy in Wimbledon final."
The big left-hander, who was two points from defeat in the semifinals, found himself serving from behind during most of the last set. He kept coming through under pressure, easily pulling even at 5-all and again at 6-all. An ace made it 7-all.
Ivanisevic finished the tournament with 213 aces, breaking his 1992 Wimbledon record.
"He's just serving really well," Rafter said. "It's not much fun down at the other end trying to get it back."
The only service break of the set came in the 15th game. Rafter missed four first serves and Ivanisevic took advantage, smacking three excellent returns. The third one, for a winner at 15-40, gave him an 8-7 lead and a chance to serve for the championship.
Because he's known as never-boring Goran, he blew an easy volley, then double-faulted to fall behind 15-30. Two big serves, including his 27th ace, took him to match point.
Tears welled in his eyes, and he hit a double fault 5 feet long. A service winner set up another match point, which produced his 16th and final double fault.
"I knew I was going to be one, two double faults," Ivanisevic said. "My both arm was so heavy."
When Rafter hit a backhand wide, Ivanisevic looked to the sky in gratitude. Then he hit a shaky volley and lost the next point, returning the score to deuce.
The most feared serve in tennis finally bailed him out. He smacked a service winner to reach match point again, then swung another serve wide, and Rafter dumped the ball into the net.
"Thank God he missed it. Otherwise we'd still be playing," Ivanisevic said.
He collapsed as the crowd roared, then rose in a daze. At the net, Rafter gave him a hug, a pat on the back and a rub on the head.
Ivanisevic then crossed the court and ran up a stadium aisle to the VIP box for a group hug with his father, coach and friends. When he climbed onto a broadcasting booth with a grin as wide as his outstretched arms, the crowd renewed its chant of "Go-ran! Go-ran!"
"I don't care now if I ever win a match in my life again," he said. "Whatever I do in my life, wherever I go, I going to be always Wimbledon champion."
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