by | Jul 4, 1998 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

WIMBLEDON, England — I am going to attempt something difficult now. I am going to try and make you root for Goran Ivanisevic.

This is difficult because American sports fans care as much about foreign tennis players as they do about last week’s trash. And those are the ones we can pronounce.

But let me make my case, because I truly believe that Ivanis — actually, forget his name, I’m going to give him a new one in a second — I truly believe that this guy is the most engaging character on the men’s tour right now. Really. And I am going to build a case if it kills me.

First, let’s call him something else, since I can only type Ivanisevic so many times without blowing a vowel. Let’s call him “The Big I.” He is, after all, a 6-foot-4 Croatian, with a killer serve. Boris Becker wasn’t that tall, and they called him “Boom Boom.”

Besides, The Big I is going to face Pete Sampras for the Wimbledon title on Sunday. It is The Big I’s third Wimbledon final. He has never won.

In fact, he is getting close to 27 years old, has been a pro for a decade now, and despite his enormous talent and overwhelming serve, they call him “the best player never to have won a Big One.”

Starting to feel something yet?

All right. Consider this list of pluses for The Big I, from personal to professional. And keep an open mind. We have to root for someone in Wimbledon. We can’t talk hockey forever, you know.

OK. Unlike many players in tennis, The Big I has a temper — and isn’t afraid to show it.

When he gets upset, he clubs himself in the head, like Jud Heathcote.

He refers to his tantrums as “blackouts.” He says “Sometimes, I go mentally.”

Also, he looks like Jesus.

Really. With his new long hair and beard, the resemblance is striking. When asked about this, he says, “Maybe that’s why I’m playing good.”

Speaking of religion, The Big I also says “God” a lot on court.

OK. He yells it. As in “OH, GOD!”

But when asked about this, he says, “Why not? It’s nice to talk to Him, isn’t it?”

His hometown is Split.

You gotta like a guy from Split, don’t you?

Built to last

The Big I has unusual superstitions. At Wimbledon, he listens to the same two Croatian songs every day. In the locker room, he uses a different shower, one for each of his matches. When asked what happens if someone is using that shower, he shrugs and says, “I wait.”

He plays long.

He plays long often.

He is, basically, the Inna-Godda-Da-Vida of tennis.

Once, at the 1992 Olympics, he played — and won — four straight five-set matches, the first time anyone can recall that happening.

On Friday, against former Wimbledon champ Richard Krajicek, he had the match won, up two sets to none, 5-4 in the third, and he blew two match points, the second one by double-faulting. He wound up playing two more hours and two more sets, including tennis “overtime” in the fifth, finally winning, 15 games to 13.

It took three hours, 22 minutes.

After the match, Krajicek denied he was tired. But The Big I said, “Oh yes, I was very tired. My a– was sore as hell.”

He has a tattoo.

He says, “It really hurt.”

The tattoo is a cross, a shark and a rose. The cross, he says, “is a cross.” The rose, he says, “is like love.” And the shark, “is a pretty tough animal.”

You can’t argue with that.

A patriot with substance

He gives part of his winnings for medical supplies to his war-torn country.

He started a foundation, Children In Need, to help war orphans.

He was Croatia’s first Olympic medalist.

He cried when they played his national anthem.

He roots madly for Croatia in the World Cup.

When asked what would happen if Croatia won the World Cup and he won Wimbledon, he says, “I think the whole country would be drunk for the rest of the year — including me.”

He means it.

He had a chance for the Wimbledon crown twice before, losing to Andre Agassi in the 1992 finals, and Pete Sampras in 1994. Critics said he blew his opportunities and never would get this far again.

They seemed correct after his last five Grand Slams, which were four first-round losses and one second-round exit.

Now he is back, and he says, “I hope, maybe Sunday, I can change what they say about me.”

This is what they say about him. Sampras says, “He is like a roller coaster.” Boris Becker says, “He is fragile. He loses his concentration.”

The Big I says, “Sometimes, my mind, it goes to the beach.”

Well, now.

Don’t we all?

So there you have it. As good a case as I can build for my man. Never mind that if The Big I won, it would be history for Croatia, history for Wimbledon and the first time a left-hander has taken the men’s title since John McEnroe. Hopefully, by now, you are already pulling for The Big I like a member of the family.

Then again, if all else fails in this passionate pitch, I can always revert to one final reason:

When was the last time Pete Sampras said anything interesting?

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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