She flew above it all. The rains came and shredded the schedule;
her father made the usual spectacle of himself by babbling about
how she might retire; her sister ran out of the tournament
grabbing at her ailing gut. None of it came close to touching
her. Venus Williams spent the Wimbledon fortnight like a queen in
a tower in the sky, so remote it was eerie. She didn't want
worship. She didn't want coaching. "I wanted silence," she said
on Sunday. "I wanted to do my own thinking, and I didn't want
anyone to bother me. I knew what I was going to do. I wasn't
going to play silly. I was going to execute."
She executed, all right. Gliding through the draw with regal
ease, taking out opponents with off-with-their-heads
imperiousness, she won her second straight Wimbledon crown--and
third Grand Slam event in 12 months--by hammering 19-year-old
upstart Justine Henin 6-1, 3-6, 6-0 in Sunday's final. After
dismantling Henin's gorgeous backhand with flat, skidding
115-mph serves and heavy groundstrokes, Williams took only a few
half-hearted hops in celebration. The crowd cheered politely.
She didn't care. "For sure, they wanted her to win," Williams
said of Henin, "but it's not an issue. I don't need approval."
Wimbledon has a long tradition of champions more respected than
loved, but Bjorn Borg, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and the
man Williams replaces as the most feared player on grass,
29-year-old Pete Sampras, all eventually revealed that they had
yearned for the fans' affection. However, at 21 Williams betrays
no insecurity, no grand ambition, no drive to break any career
record--nothing, that is, but her astonishing speed and the
ability to suddenly raise her game, with no grass-court
preparation, to genius level. Stung by her loss six weeks ago in
the first round of the French Open, Williams went home to South
Florida and practiced her way back into the form that won her two
Grand Slam singles titles and an Olympic gold medal last year.
Just as astonishing was Williams's ability to concentrate amid
the growing chaos around her. Wimbledon 2001 was a palace coup.
The king, Sampras, was deposed; Andre the Giant took to cursing
and firing balls at linespeople; and a plague known as Henmania
infected the populace. Most jarring, a court jester named Goran
Ivanisevic, who introduced himself variously as Good Goran, 911
Goran and Crazy Goran, took over. He popped painkillers, ripped
off his shirt after winning, watched Teletubbies each morning--and
then outlasted Australia's Patrick Rafter 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7
in Monday's excruciatingly wondrous men's final to become the
first wild card to win a Grand Slam tournament.
July 15, 2001
"If somebody told me that two months ago, I would say, 'Man,
you're crazy,'" said Ivanisevic, the 125th-ranked player, who
pulled off one of the greatest series of upsets in tennis
history. The 29-year-old Croatian, who needs rotator cuff surgery
on his serving shoulder, had lost in the first round of
qualifying at this year's Australian Open and had won only nine
matches all year. He got his wild card at Wimbledon because he
had thrice reached the final there and lost. "I don't want to get
another plate; I already have three plates," Ivanisevic said
before this year's final, referring to the silver plate that goes
to the runner-up. "If some angel comes tonight in my dreams and
say, 'O.K., Goran, you going to win Wimbledon tomorrow, but you
not able to touch the racket ever again in your life,' I say,
'O.K., I take that.'"
Who could blame him? Blessed with an effortless bomb of a serve,
Ivanisevic seemed destined to finish his career as one of sport's
lovable losers, a man who could make tennis look both so easy and
so hard. Of his three defeats in the Wimbledon final--one to Andre
Agassi and two to Sampras--he said early in the fortnight, "I'm
not psychologist, you know. I am mature, but sometimes I am not."
The Ivanisevic who showed up at Wimbledon this year, though, was
a toned-down version. During the final he kept himself under
control most of the time. Once, when he was serving in the fourth
set and a double fault was called, he erupted, swearing, throwing
his racket and kicking the net. He argued with chair umpire Jorge
Diaz and after the match called one linesperson ugly and said
another one looked like a faggot. "But then I say, 'O.K., you
said enough, you got everything out,'" Ivanisevic said afterward.
"'This is final, keep cool.' Maybe five years ago, I lose four or
five games, and then I'm finished."
Not this year. Lashing his psyche to the deck in the fifth set,
Ivanisevic pressured Rafter by holding serve easily until, in the
15th game, Rafter cracked. He served up a 79-mph softball and
watched helplessly as Ivanisevic whipped a forehand past him for
the crucial break. "Everyone thought, He hadn't done anything in
Grand Slams for the last few years," the 28-year-old Rafter said
following the final. "Why would anybody give him any hope of
coming back and doing what he's done?"
Television programmers on both sides of the pond weren't pleased
that Sunday's men's final was moved to Monday, and the
thick-witted response by the All England Club to this year's wet
final weekend again raised cries in favor of placing a dome over
Centre Court. Nothing should put more pressure on the brains at
SW 19 than Tim Henman's loss to Ivanisevic in the semifinals. On
Friday, with Henman playing masterfully and up two sets to one
and 2-1 in the fourth set, rain caused the suspension of play at
6:18 p.m. "I couldn't hurt him in any way," Ivanisevic said on
Shortly after 8 p.m., the All England Club postponed the rest of
the match until Saturday, even though the weather had cleared and
there was enough light to play about 30 more minutes. Then,
instead of heeding forecasters who said there would be dry
weather early on Saturday, Wimbledon scheduled the match to
resume at 1 p.m. That start was washed out, and play didn't
resume until 5:37. By then Ivanisevic had screwed his head back
on. He won the fourth set in a tiebreaker and led the fifth set
3-2 when more rain pushed play to Sunday. When three All England
Club officials were asked at a Saturday night press conference
why they hadn't started that morning, none responded for 10
seconds. Referee Alan Mills grew red in the face and blurted,
Bad answer, and one more reason for critics to declare that
Wimbledon's relevance is diminishing. The grass-court season has
essentially shrunk to four weeks, the number of grass-court
players has dwindled to a handful, and the player seeded No. 1,
Sampras, has not won a tournament since taking his seventh
Wimbledon crown last year. (Indeed, the owner of a 56-1 record
over the last eight years at Wimbledon lost in five sets to
19-year-old Roger Federer in the fourth round.) Both the French
and U.S. Opens are regarded as truer tests for the modern game,
and it has become less a sin to bypass the low bounces and dodgy
food of England. Desperate to head off a boycott by
clay-courters, Wimbledon expanded its seedings this year from 16
to the top 32 players, but that didn't stop Gustavo Kuerten, a
1999 Wimbledon quarterfinalist, from becoming the first No. 1
player in 28 years to skip Wimbledon because he wanted a rest.
Williams, who has been picking and choosing the tournaments she
plays, says she's finally ready to take a different approach.
After nearly two years of part-time play, the world's No. 2
player declared on Sunday that she would beef up her schedule and
gun for the No. 1 ranking held by Martina Hingis. Australian and
French Open champion Jennifer Capriati ended her Grand Slam run
when she hit the wall during her semifinal against Henin.
Capriati lost 6-2, 4-6, 2-6 but insisted that a loss in a tennis
match had no power to hurt her. She is certain she's in her prime
and ready to battle on. If some people want to take her newfound
perspective as a sign of weakness, she's happy to prove them
wrong. "I've always had a strong character, a strong personality,
and I'm not going to let someone ruin my life or control my
life," Capriati said last week. "I'm not a victim. I'm going to
make everybody else a victim."
In the end the 2001 Championships shrugged off their limitations
and their oft-insipid management to provide the most stirring
men's tournament in years. Federer, Taylor Dent and Lleyton
Hewitt, both 20, and Andy Roddick, 18, broke out with moments of
superb tennis and great theater--the best showing yet by tennis's
New Balls generation. Meanwhile, with the hot breath of time on
their necks, Rafter, Ivanisevic, Agassi, 31, and the 26-year-old
Henman showcased what Capriati called "the volcano waiting to
erupt" as they advanced to the semis. Each knew this might be his
best shot at his first or last Wimbledon title, and the pressure
stripped all four men to the core.
The men's tour has been obsessed with matching the women's parade
of overhyped personalities, but this was something better:
character revealed, in full view of millions. Ivanisevic, long
tagged a choker, proved capable of humility and calm under fire.
Henman, in his third trip to the Wimbledon semifinals, showed
that he's willing to withstand anything to grab the only
championship that matters to him, never mind that his game may be
too weak to win it. Agassi has been charming and cool during his
late-career run over the past two years, but last week he
reverted to his snarly, profane earlier self. He fired a 122-mph
serve at a linesman who'd made two questionable calls during
Agassi's classic five-set semifinal against Rafter. Then, after
being turned in by a lineswoman for muttering an obscenity,
Agassi hit a ball toward her and later snapped, "I blame her
husband" for her apparent prudishness. Rafter, who is taking six
months off at the end of this year, stayed the same
self-effacing, sporting mate he has always been portrayed as,
proving that sometimes what you see is what you get. When he and
Ivanisevic hugged at the net after the final, Rafter
affectionately ruffled his opponent's hair.
But that was after the storm had ended. For the first time the
men's final was contested not before the usual All England Club
members but before a riot of Aussie and Croat supporters who'd
camped out the night before for 10,000 unreserved Centre Court
tickets and then turned the usually subdued proceedings into a
virtual soccer match. Once Rafter was broken at 7-7 in the fifth
set, everybody knew that the battle would be fought in Goran's
Ivanisevic sprayed a volley, followed with a service winner,
double-faulted, threw in two aces and found himself at
championship point. He held his hands together and prayed for
help--and then sent a second serve four feet behind the service
line. He bailed himself out with another big serve, then
double-faulted again on his second match point. On his third
match point he squatted in the grass, hoping that even more
begging would get God on his side. After a volley by Ivanisevic,
Rafter lobbed the ball cleanly over his head. Ivanisevic was a
mess. Then something funny happened. He faced his fourth match
point and did the unthinkable: nothing. He didn't crane his eyes
to the heavens, didn't cross himself, didn't ask the crowd for
help. Inside, though, Ivanisevic made one more plea. God, please.
You are testing me enough. Not four match points. "He wanted to
be sure that I'm really a man," Ivanisevic said.
His first serve went wide. On the second, instead of launching
his typical missile, Ivanisevic lofted the ball down the middle
at 109 mph. Rafter's forehand landed in the net. The air filled
with a noise the likes of which Ivanisevic had never heard. "This
is it," he said. "This is the end of the world."
And the end of Goran as we know him. "Today my life changes," he
said. "Finally I am the champion. Now people are going to look at
me differently. I going to look at myself differently. Now I am
proud of myself."
Ivanisevic then revealed plans to "get drunk, fly for another
week and put myself back to earth." As he spoke, he had his hat
on backward and looked as goofy as ever, but what he said was
true. Everyone was looking at him differently now. The jester
had become the king.
Venus Williams didn't want worship. She didn't want coaching. "I
wanted silence," she said. "I knew what I was going to do."
"I've made the decision that I'm in control," says Capriati.
"I'm not a victim. I'm going to make everyone else a victim."