x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Ivanisevic's Wimbledon win still inspires Croatians

His win over Pat Rafter for the 2001 men's title has helped inspire current players, such as Ivan Ljubicic and Marin Cilic, as well as start a youth movement in the country.

Goran Ivanisevic's win over Pat Rafter in the 2001 Wimbledon men's final helped inspire current Croatian players such as Ivan Ljubicic.
Goran Ivanisevic's win over Pat Rafter in the 2001 Wimbledon men's final helped inspire current Croatian players such as Ivan Ljubicic.

A picture of Goran Ivanisevic holding up the 2001 Wimbledon trophy hangs outside one of the All England Club's interview rooms, and a glimpse of it still evokes powerful memories for his fellow Croatians.

Ivan Ljubicic knows the towering left-hander better than most and as he entered the small cubicle after his first-round win over compatriot Marin Cilic, it did not take the world No 33 long to recall Ivanisevic's triumph.

"For me, and I'm sure for a lot of Croatians, it was the biggest emotional moment of my life. Definitely tennis and career-wise," said the 32 year old, who escaped war-torn Bosnia aged 13 in 1992 and was one of several players taken to Italy by a club that was reaching out to help children.

"Everybody I know cried when he won."

Ivanisevic's famous Monday victory over Australia's Pat Rafter, the pinnacle of the Croatian's career after three losses in Wimbledon finals, gave his countrymen hope.

"For us, it broke the ice. I had to go through all the small steps to break through," said Ljubicic, who climbed from world No 91 to 37 in the year of Ivanisevic's win.

"Then the others followed. Ivo Karlovic, Zeljko Krajan, then of course Mario Ancic and Ivan Dodig, and Cilic now."

Karlovic, another giant who served 78 aces in a six-hour Davis Cup match in 2009, said Ivanisevic's breakthrough had been the "beginning" for tennis in Croatia.

"It's a little country. There was a war and it was not easy for any of us.

"Our tennis federation is not as rich as others, so they couldn't really help us a lot," the 32 year old said after booking his spot in the second round.

"I think, with Ivanisevic, it brought along a lot of young tennis players who wanted to become good. With Ivanisevic's success it was the beginning."

Not only did it inspire a whole host of professionals, it also brought a traditionally elitist sport to the masses.

"Because of Goran a lot of kids started playing tennis," Ljubicic, the ATP Player Council's president from 2006 to 2008, said. Rather than stall in their progress, however, after Ivanisevic's retirement in 2004, the Croatian youth movement have had the examples of Ljubicic and Karlovic to follow.

"For the kids now, they still remember Goran, but they've seen us practising next to them, and taking these steps, and they know getting to the top 100 is not something incredible," Ljubicic said.

"[We have] solid top 50, top 30 players like myself, who have the potential to get to the top 10, [and] that gives kids more hope and energy and belief that they can actually do it," said the former world No 3.

"It's not like in Serbia with Novak Djokovic, or Switzerland with Roger Federer. Yes, you have the best players, but they cannot be the guideline.

"They can be an idol but you cannot look at them and say 'Yes I can do that'.".

For Ljubicic and world No 144 Karlovic, both unseeded like their friend Ivanisevic was 10 years ago, lifting the Wimbledon title remains a distant dream, but the countrymen would at least like to make it through to the second week.

Ljubicic takes on Ukraine's Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round.

Karlovic has a match against Lukasz Kubot of Poland.

"Goran was in London last week for some exhibition matches. We had dinner together and had some fun.

"He will be back next week. Hopefully I will also be here," said the 6ft 8ins Karlovic before grinning as he bowed his head under the door frame.