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Ivanisevic's epic Wimbledon win an 'unsolved mystery'

By Ravi Ubha, for CNN
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Fri July 5, 2013
Goran Ivanisevic was all smiles after beating Patrick Rafter to claim a first Wimbledon title. The Croat had been a loser in three previous Wimbledon finals and thought he'd never end the skid. Goran Ivanisevic was all smiles after beating Patrick Rafter to claim a first Wimbledon title. The Croat had been a loser in three previous Wimbledon finals and thought he'd never end the skid.
Ending the skid
Celebration time
Centre Court atmosphere
Henman obstacle
Painful memories
Good friends
  • Twelve years after his Wimbledon triumph, Goran Ivanisevic isn't sure how he won
  • Ivanisevic needed a wildcard to enter the tournament because his ranking wasn't high enough
  • Ivanisevic beat Patrick Rafter in a 'People's Monday' final after losing three other finals
  • Ivanisevic, hampered by a shoulder injury, contemplated quitting tennis before his title

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(CNN) -- The final game of one of the most memorable matches in Wimbledon history, featuring two fan favorites, took on a life of its own.

Back in 2001 -- in the 16th game of the fifth set -- members of Goran Ivanisevic's entourage asked for divine intervention as the Croatian sought to close out the encounter against Australia's Patrick Rafter and end years of Wimbledon heartache.

Ivanisevic himself asked for help from above, he wanted the same ball when serving, and Australian and Croatian spectators on Centre Court roared encouragement between points to make for a football like atmosphere.

Ivanisevic had lost three previous Wimbledon finals and seemed destined to miss out on glory at the All England Club given he had struggled with a shoulder injury earlier in 2001 and contemplated retirement.

His ranking of 125th wasn't even high enough to land direct entry into the tournament.

Read: Federer suffers shock defeat

Wimbledon gave Ivanisevic a wildcard, however, and he proceeded to work his way through the draw with a little help from Wimbledon's famed and all too frequent rain gods.

So there he was against Rafter on "People's Monday," leading 8-7 in the fifth set, four points from winning the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world.

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No ordinary player -- and character -- one sensed that if Ivanisevic held serve, he would do it the hard way.

He had to overcome a resilient Rafter -- and painful memories of defeats to Pete Sampras, twice, and Andre Agassi.

It proved to be the case.

A forehand volley went long by a large margin for 0-15. At 15-all, he double faulted. Having hit an ace to get to championship point, he subsequently double faulted again -- by a yard.

A second championship point came and went with another double fault, this time into the net, and a third was saved by Rafter with a lob that was good enough against an Ivanisevic too frozen to jump.

Rafter finally buckled on a fourth match point, the pressure from Ivanisevic's destructive serve finally too much to repel.

A return sailed into the net and Ivanisevic was the Wimbledon champion and the only wildcard to bag the men's title at noted postcode SW19.

Dedication to a fallen friend

He worked his way into his players' box and exchanged hugs with his team, which included father Srdjan, who had recently undergone a triple heart bypass.

Ivanisevic dedicated the victory to former NBA star Drazen Petrovic, who died in a car accident in 1993.

"The best moment is when you hold the trophy," Ivanisevic told CNN's Open Court before the start of Wimbledon. This year's men's final will be played on Sunday.

"I was watching too many guys holding that beautiful trophy. I had this (runner-up) plate at home," added Ivanisevic. "It's a nice plate but you don't want to have that plate at home.

"Nobody cares for second place. If you want to go back now and think of Wimbledon finalists in the past 15 years, to be honest, I have no idea."

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Ivanisevic almost didn't get that far.

He trailed Britain's Tim Henman two sets to one in the semifinals, losing the third 6-0 in about 15 minutes. He was out of sorts.

That's when the unpredictable British weather saved Ivanisevic and hurt the local darling.

With Henman holding a 2-1 advantage in the fourth set on the second Friday of the fortnight, rain fell and the contest was suspended.

They returned Saturday and Ivanisevic, mentally fresher, claimed the fourth set in a tiebreak. A further suspension ensured the nervy affair had to be completed Sunday, with Ivanisevic eliminating Henman 6-3 in the fifth to disappoint a nation.

A Monday final beckoned against Rafter, himself a loser to Sampras -- the king of Wimbledon prior to Roger Federer's arrival -- in the 2000 finale.

Fans queued up overnight to land one of the 10,000 unreserved tickets made available for the final, leading to a more vocal climax than usual.

"It was good that it was on a Monday because three finals I lost on Sunday, so finally I played on Monday," Ivanisevic said. "Unbelievable atmosphere, probably never again because now they have a roof.

"Patrick is a very good friend, a great guy. We both should have won Wimbledon before, him in 2000 in the final, and I was supposed to win a long time ago."

After Ivanisevic beat Carlos Moya in the second round he sensed something special was about to happen.

Did it the hard way

Besides Henman and Rafter, Ivanisevic also topped Andy Roddick, Greg Rusedski and Marat Safin in a difficult draw.

Of his seven victims, only one -- first-round opponent Fredrik Jonsson -- would never feature in the top four in the rankings.

I felt after the second round that I was going to win. I could not say it loud because they would think I was completely nuts
Goran Ivanisevic

"It was an unsolved mystery how I won, but I felt after the second round that I was going to win," Ivanisevic said. "I could not say it loud because they would think I was completely nuts.

"I felt for the first time after so many months, actually a year, the racket (that I played with had a special sound). I lost the sound for a year and a half and that (first) Monday I got the sound back. I said, 'This is a good sign.'"

The sound had vanished when Ivanisevic began the year by playing in qualifying at the Australian Open. Stuck on a back court after playing in some of the world's grandest stadiums, he tanked -- a tennis term for not trying.

Read: Djokovic conquers Australia

Although unpleasant at the time, it proved to be that year's turning point for Ivanisevic.

"I had a long journey to think about what I was going to do, then I went to play a challenger in Germany," Ivanisevic said. "I played the final. Then I started to play better. I didn't have great results but I started to enjoy it again.

"Wimbledon came and it was actually my time," added Ivanisevic, who can still be seen on the seniors' tour, while he also helps run a tournament in Zagreb and dabbles in commentating.

"It was written somewhere that it was my time. I did everything in my life the harder way. Why do it easy if you can do it the hard way?"

But by doing it the hard way, the larger-than-life Ivanisevic has ensured his achievement at Wimbledon will never be forgotten.

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