x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Expect the unexpected when Ivanisevic comes to Dubai

Discovering that Goran Ivanisevic was going to be a leading attraction at next month's Legends Rock Dubai tennis tournament rekindled memories of one of the greatest days in sport - certainly one of the best in my time covering it

Goran Ivanisevic will be coming to Dubai next month.
Goran Ivanisevic will be coming to Dubai next month.

Discovering that Goran Ivanisevic was going to be a leading attraction at next month's Legends Rock Dubai tennis tournament rekindled memories of one of the greatest days in sport - certainly one of the best in my time covering it. It was the rarity of a "Third Monday" at Wimbledon in 2001 - the year when The Championships were as badly hit by Britain's summer rain as they have ever been in recent times.

Ivanisevic, one of the most popular visitors to the All England Club, was paradoxically helped into his third final by the appalling weather which rescued him from what was heading for a routine semi-final defeat in four sets by the home favourite Tim Henman. The overnight curtailment of play enabled the big-serving Croatian to regroup and break the hearts of the host nation by turning round his battle with Henman to come through it dramatically in the deciding set to earn a final date with the previous year's runner-up Pat Rafter, of Australia.

Those who perennially occupy the best seats on Centre Court, the most hallowed arena in tennis, had by then gone back to their various businesses leaving the genuine tennis fans to queue overnight in uncertain weather for the opportunity to secure a once-in-a-lifetime view of how the most coveted honour in the game would be won and lost. Earls Court, the Australian stronghold in South West London, was deserted that day as green and gold regalia was transported a few stops down the District Line to SW19. Similarly, Croatians thronged to the home of tennis in their thousands to create an atmosphere rarely witnessed at a football stadium nowadays, let alone a tennis venue.

The non-Corporate impeccably-behaved crowd was also swelled that afternoon by the touring Australian cricket team who had defeated England by an innings and 118 runs with a day to spare at Edgbaston the previous afternoon. They were assembled in an enclosure adjacent to the press box and I remember watching captivated as captain Steve Waugh, motionless for the three-hour-plus match, organised a rota for his teammates to keep the refreshments coming all afternoon.

The cricketers were behind their compatriot all the way but it was not enough, as Ivanisevic, calling for divine intervention to see him through this latest episode of a traumatic career, somehow held together his fragile temperament to prevail 9-7 in a gripping final set. The unbridled joy of being able to celebrate an elusive victory two months short of his 30th birthday helped the enigmatic Ivanisevic ease the pain of defeats in two previous finals by Americans Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras and earned him a standing ovation from the normally staid tennis media as he bounded into the post-match interview room.

Those press conferences with Ivanisevic became unmissable over the years as the strange visitor from Split - the annual use of of the phrase "split personality" was inevitable - spoke in his inimitable fashion about topics ranging from children's television programmes (the BBC's Tellytubbies was his favourite) to the same food in he ate in the same London restaurant every evening for a fortnight. The National was given the chance to recreate one of those question and answer sessions with Ivanisevic, now 37, in advance of the four-day Dubai tournament which starts on Nov 19 - an event this newspaper is sponsoring.

Sadly, it did not work electronically but it is bound to be much better when the "Leftie Legend" with the fearsome serve holds court at the Aviation Club next month. It will be a happy return to Dubai Tennis Stadium for Ivanisevic who won the ATP tour event there in 1996. Asking Ivanisevic in an email exchange for his recollections of that red letter day in the UAE brought an unGoran-like response: "It was a great memory. Winning a tournament is such a great feeling, especially in Dubai where people are so supporting."

Similarly, an invitation to him to wallow in the the crowning glory of fulfilling his lifetime dream with that epic Wimbledon triumph, also appeared to fall on deaf ears. "Just after I was thinking about it every day. Now, of course, I don't think about it every day. More often it is my fans who remind it to me." One final try then for a blast from the past. Let's see if he still has that split personality "Good Goran", "Bad Goran" and "Emergency Goran" as he referred to them during his highly-strung hey day.

"Do you still have them to call upon?" I asked. "Yes I think so," was the disappointingly laconic answer which, you can rest assured, will be enlarged upon when he takes his place in Dubai next month alongside former world No 1 Jim Courier, dual French Open winner Sergi Bruguera, Sweden's Anders Jarryd, Australia's John Fitzgerald and the defending champion, Paul Haarhuis, of Holland.