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The voices in his head agree: Ivanisevic is back

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By DARRELL FRY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 5, 2001


WIMBLEDON, England -- Root all you want for Jennifer Capriati in her Grand Slam quest. Cheer for Andre Agassi, too. And if you still want to feel badly for Pete Sampras, be my guest.

I was behind all of them, too, but I have three new favorites.

Goran Ivanisevic.

If you're wondering who the other two are, you're missing the real fun of this Wimbledon.

In a tournament awash in typical British conservativeness, protocol and logic, Ivanisevic is the only thing that's wonderfully insane. He is both complex and simple; a nuisance and a tremendous delight, sort of like a puppy who occasionally chews up your most expensive pair of shoes.

Wednesday he became something else: The biggest story of this tournament to date.

Success can be sweet, but never quite as sweet as when you taste it a second time. This is what athletes so often discover. Win something once and you'll appreciate it immensely. Lose it, then spend years trying to recapture it and you'll want to sleep with it under your pillow if you ever get your hands on it again.

This is where Goran is: a three-time Wimbledon finalist who plunged to the sewer of his sport and now is within a half volley of reaching its pinnacle.

It has been a circuitous journey for a Croatian affectionately thought of as a bit of a fruitcake with a reputation for slamming his racket and uttering four-letter words. Since he last reached Wimbledon's final in 1998, his ranking has plummeted, to No. 129 at the end of last year. He was playing so badly he had to ask, sometimes beg, tournament organizers to let him into the field as a wild-card entrant.

They usually did and Ivanisevic usually lost right away. He had won eight matches and was ranked No. 125 coming into this Wimbledon. There were times he even had to swallow his pride and play a few challenger events, tennis' equivalent of Triple-A baseball or NFL Europe.

He did it gladly, playing with his shoulders pushed back and his chin up.

"It didn't hurt my pride," he said.

If Wimbledon officials hadn't heeded his pleas for a wild-card entry this year, he probably wouldn't be here. And that would be the biggest shame of all.

For no one has been quite as entertaining and as inspiring during this fortnight as Ivanisevic, whose four-set quarterfinal win Wednesday over reigning U.S. Open champion Marat Safin made him the first wild-card entrant to reach Wimbledon's semifinals.

Forget about Ivanisevic the tennis player for a minute. The guy is a crack-up. He should do standup. He's funny without even trying.

His running gag this week is his disclosure there are two other Gorans in his head. He's the talented yet combustible one. The second is the calm, level-headed one. And the third's name is 9-1-1 because he only emerges to compose Goran when it's a tennis emergency.

"He's the special one. ... When it's tough, he comes in, steps in," Goran said. "Sometimes he cannot help because the crazy Goran is too crazy to help him or the good one is too good to do something. So, he has a tough job."

I know. I know. It all sounds ridiculous. But you can't have more fun listening to someone clown without paying a cover. Plus, Goran and his alter egos are playing so well, who really cares?

"They're both good," he said of the other Gorans. "They're both thinking the same way. They're both in London. That's very important, you know, because when one is in London and the other is, I don't know, somewhere else, it's not good.

"After so much time struggling, I decided just to start letting them travel together. So they are traveling together now. They are good friends, which is important because when they're good friends, things like today happen."

The more pressing question is: What's going to happen now? The Gorans are in the semifinals against Britain's Tim Henman, a handful of 135 mph serves from a most improbable fourth shot at the Wimbledon title.

With Goran's 30th birthday in two months and a nagging shoulder injury that will require off-season surgery, there probably won't be many more go-rounds for him -- "Maybe this is the last one for me." If there is, indeed, a heaven and a God, Goran will get one more shot at the roses, one more chance to make us happily cry after so many years of making us cry laughing.

"I believe I can do it," he said.

You may like Agassi more. Or be too preoccupied with the fortunes of Capriati and Sampras to care. But my money is on Goran.

All three of them.

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