A fairytale by definition is a children’s story about magical and imaginary beings in mythical lands. Another, more grim way of looking at it, is that it is a fabricated story, one intended to deceive because the tall yarns are meant for storybooks and not real life.
But the fact that sport, sometimes, allows us to live a fairytale in reality is precisely is what makes it such a fulfilling experience. Nothing is impossible, every fantasy can turn into reality and nothing ever is certain. One might say... the greater the odds, the greater the story.
And for those who followed the career of the big-serving Goran Ivanisevic, there was no greater day than the Wimbledon final of 2001 against Patrick Rafter, fittingly called ‘The People’s final.’
“It’s an unsolved mystery how I won,” Ivanisevic told CNN years later. “It was written somewhere that it was my time. Why do it easy, if you can do it the hard way?”
Ivanisevic was just 29 then but on shaky ground. Wimbledon usually brought out the best in him (he had already reached three finals) but a shoulder injury had not helped his mental state and he had dropped to 125 in the world rankings.
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He needed a wild card to make it to the main draw at SW19 that year and he only got it because he was a three-time finalist. He probably arrived in London with a simple aim: to give his best and hold his head high on the surface that most suited his big-serving game.
Most reckoned that even that would be difficult. Ivanisevic had won just nine matches in the entire year. He was a shadow of the player who racked up record ace counts usually.
He began with a straight-sets win over qualifier Fredrik Jonsson and then came from a set down to account for former World no 1 Carlos Moya in the second round.
Ivanisevic cleared the first-week hurdle with another dominating performance against the up and coming Andy Roddick and set up a clash of two big servers against local hope Greg Rusedski. But the Croat had too much firepower for Rusedski to tackle.
Ivanisevic, then, packed off the temperamental Marat Safin to come within just two wins of the title.
The semi-final against Tim Henman was played over three days. When bad light stopped play on Friday, the Brit was leading 2-1 in the fourth set after bagging two of the first three sets. Just 52 minutes of play was possible on Saturday due to rain and that was enough time for Ivanisevic to force a decider and take a 3-2 lead in the fifth and final set, which he wrapped up rather easily on Sunday.
The final against Rafter, which was played on a Monday, was another topsy-turvy affair with Ivanisevic losing his cool for the first time in the tournament in the fourth set when he was called for a foot-fault and then his second serve called out. One would have wondered at that moment as to whether the temperamental Croat could hold things together from that point on.
More precisely, it was not known which of his three personalities – ‘Good Goran, Bad Goran or Emergency Goran’ – would make an appearance.
But the Croatian held his nerve, maybe because his father – a heart patient – had defied doctor’s orders to come for the match. Despite losing the fourth set and was two points away from another final loss while trailing 6-7 in the decider, his big serve bailing him out at just the right juncture.
He broke Rafter’s serve in the very next game with a booming forehand return. But there were more twists to come. Trailing 15-30 in the 16th game, Ivanisevic served two aces to earn a match point. He wasted that opportunity and the one thereafter by committing double faults on both occasions. The Australian then saved a third with a backhand down the line.
However, Ivanisevic wasn’t to be denied on the fourth occasion as Rafter put the service return into the net to spark off wild celebrations from the Croatian, who had won 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7.
Ivanisevic, to date, remains the only male wildcard to win a Grand Slam singles title. But more than the record, watching the Croatian fulfill his destiny when he was least expected to remains one of the most enchanting memories of the tournament’s storied history.
You can watch the tension-filled last two games of that final here:
You can watch Ivanisevic’s Wimbledon journey here:
The extended highlights of that epic final is here: