Originally created 07/11/01

Croatia celebrates tennis triumph

SPLIT, Croatia -- Tens of thousands of jubilant Croats poured into the streets of Goran Ivanisevic's hometown in one of the biggest celebrations Croatia has ever seen, welcoming home their undisputed hero: the new Wimbledon champion.

"Goran, we love you!" shouted the crowd, cheering and crying with joy. One banner said, "You're a genius" - another said Ivanisevic should be president.

At least some of the Croats who swarmed into this Adriatic coast city appeared grateful for the opportunity to redirect their patriotic fervor from fury over the indictment of Croat war crimes suspects to joy for a homegrown hero.

"Never mind about war crimes and indictments and suspects - let's concentrate on Goran," said Zdravko Hodic, 68.

As Ivanisevic stepped onto a stage, the crowd exploded in a cheer for his cliffhanger, five-set victory over Australian Patrick Rafter on Monday. The tournament was his 48th major event, the most ever for a first-time Grand Slam champion, and the victory made him the first wild card to win a major men's title.

"I prayed to God to give me another chance. I prayed and cried so much that even He had mercy on me and He gave me this chance," Ivanisevic told the crowd.

"Without you, I could never have done it," he said.

The lanky 29-year-old raised his hands and blew kisses to the crowd.

"I don't know what to say," Ivanisevic began. "This is unforgettable. I have been everywhere, but this is amazing. We are the craziest people in the world!"

Croatia's favorite son took off his jeans and threw them into the crowd, followed by his shoes, a scarf and finally the T-shirt, leaving him standing for a moment in nothing but his underpants.

The exuberance of the crowd - estimated at about 200,000 - was a stark contrast from the last time Split had so many people on its streets. About 100,000 people gathered here in February to protest the government's decision to prosecute a Croat general for war crimes.

Ivanisevic returned to a country cast into political turmoil by another government pledge - this time to arrest and extradite suspects indicted by the U.N. war crimes court in The Hague, Netherlands.

Ivanisevic's triumph, though, channeled some of the emotions away from confrontation and toward celebration.

Nearly every newspaper showed a triumphant Ivanisevic on its cover pages Tuesday. In Split, domestic rock, pop and folk music stars pumped up the atmosphere as the crowd gathered before Ivanisevic's plane touched down.

The streets were jammed with people struggling to reach the central square. Others came by sea, filling the harbor with boats.

Congratulations even came from The Hague, where nine Bosnian Croats serving war-crimes related sentences handed down by the U.N. court sent the tennis star a message thanking him for the "monumental success achieved for the Croatian homeland."

Prime Minister Ivica Racan, who has emphasized that Croatia must comply with the U.N. court, clearly hoped that the outpouring of national pride over the tennis star's triumph would blunt the forces opposed to the extraditions.

"Let us take a leaf out of Goran's book," Prime Minister Ivica Racan said after Ivanisevic's victory. "His determination and willpower to persist against all odds and under extreme pressure, should be a source of pride and a lesson to us all."


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