Goran Ivanisevic and Pat Rafter, Wimbledon 2001

The story of the unforgettable final between Goran Ivanisevic and Pat Rafter – played on a Monday – told by former Wimbledon Referee Alan Mills.

Extract form Alan Mills autobiography, Lifting the covers

The atmosphere on Centre Court that day was as good as, better perhaps, than on the People’s Sunday ten years earlier. Some of the more traditionalist members of the Club may not have enjoyed the sight of all the Croatian and Australian flags draped around the arena, nor the defining roars of encouragement for the two protagonists who soon became locked in a colossal battle of wills, but if that was the case I for one certainly didn’t hear any complaints from anyone that day or in its aftermath. Everybody was united and transfixed not just by the compulsive spectacle on show but by the electric atmosphere it generated around the Centre Court.

It was one of those rare occasions when the goose-pimples and the adrenalin did not subside until hours after the event, and even the people were still buzzing and glowing with the heart-lifting excitement of it all. Because this was not just the story of one man’s victory in an important tennis match – there was also a fascinating context to it. Ivanisevic’s remarkable progress through the draw as a wild card was part of it, and his three previous failures in the final added even more emotion, but he was also carrying the hopes of a young nation trying to make its mark on the map after all the horrors of the most recent Balkans wars.
On the other side of the court, you had Pat Rafter, the most popular man on the tennis circuit, a character you wished nothing but the very best for, and he, like his opponent, was also facing what was realistically his last chance to win a title that had eluded him in a tight contest against Sampras 12 months earlier. The presence of the Australian Test cricket team in the crowd only seemed to add to the drama.

Like most neutrals, my loyalties were torn right down the middle. You simply didn’t want either of them to lose, and it was that perhaps which lay at the heart of the tension. It was almost unbearable as the match swung first this way then that, all the time buffeted by the raucous cheering of the 14,000 fans perched on the edges of their seats. The ferocity of the support was almost alarming, and although there had not been a single unsavory incident as far as I knew, I took the precaution of putting some contingency security measures in place. As the match drew to its thunderous conclusion, I had the security people place some of their men around the perimeter of the court, just in case there was a spontaneous invasion in the heat of the moment. Amidst all the commotion, you never knew what might happen, especially if a controversial call was to enrage one set of supporters.

This tension was certainly getting to Ivanisevic, and when he was foot-faulted I looked on nervously as he completely lost his temper, kicked the net, smashed his racket and abused the umpire before, thank heaven, the red mists evaporated.
When the match entered the final set, the smart money was on Rafter because he had just swept the fourth 6-2 and he seemed to have a fair wind behind him while Ivanisevic was becalmed in the doldrums. Mr Ivanisevic Snr, who had a serious heart condition, had defied his doctor’s advice to join the Centre Court crowd that day and it was perhaps his presence that lifted his son to one mighty last effort in that final half-hour or so. Trailing 6-7, Ivanisevic was three times within two points of defeat, but he somehow pulled through and in the very next game he succeeded in breaking Rafter to go to one game clear. Like the rest of the crowd, and no doubt the millions of viewers around the world, I could barely watch as Ivanisevic tried to steady his famously volatile spirit and serve out for a glorious triumph. When he double-faulted three times in that final game and squantered two match points, you began to fear that you were watching one of the most painful acts of ‘chocking’ in the history of sport, but finally his booming serves found their range and lay face down in ecstatic relief.

Amidst the wild celebrations that ensued I tried to keep a cool head, but any fears that the emotion of the moment might turn ugly or stupid in some quarters of the ground proved utterly baseless. Everybody behaved beautifully until the awards ceremony was over and Wimbledon was put to bed after one of the most memorable days in its very long history. Bed, however was the very last thing on the minds of Ivanisevic and his rowdy followers who had gathered outside the entrance to the players’ area and filled the air with the Croatian folk-songs before accompanying their hero on what reportedly was an extremely noisy, colourful and good-natured pub crawl around Wimbledon village.

As the Croats danced and drank themselves crazy in the pubs and bars, you could’t help but feel heart-broken for Pat Rafter – not that the man himself was showing the slightest signs of despondency, self-pity or bitterness. More than any player I came across, Rafter has lived up to the Kipling ideal of treating the twin imposters of triumph and disaster just the same. ‘I had my chances to win it, but I just didn’t take them,’ he said to me, as I commiserated with him before the award ceremony got underway. ‘Great game though, wasn’t it?’ Almost exactly 12 months earlier he had said words to roughly the same effect after he came within an inch here and a shot there of beating the great Sampras, who had just equalled William Renshaw’s record of seven Wimbledon men’s singles titles. Though the match only went to four sets it was far close than the score-line suggested. Having won the first set on a tiebreak, Rafter lost the second the same way by the agonisingly close margin of 7-5, and it would have taken a truly monumental effort on Sampras’s part to come back from there had the Australian won the set.

Serena and Venus Williams, Wimbledon 2000

Extract from Tennis’s strangest matches by Peter Seddon:

Despite overcast skies on most days, Wimbledon’s Millenium Championships proved the brightest for some time as story after story made the headlines.
None was more hype than the semifinal between sisters Venus and Serena Williams, the first ever occasion on which sisters had met for a place in the Wimbledon final.

But unusual as the statistic is, it isn’t that which qualifies the match for ‘strange’ status. Nor is it the girls’ unusual route to stardom. Growing up far from privilege in the Compton ghetto district of south central Los Angeles, they were taught the game by their father Richard, who schooled himself in the rudiments by buying a ‘how to do it’ book and video when he decided that tennis was the route to riches for his girls. Way before they reached their teens he was declaring both would be champions. Richard Williams was a man with a mission.

Younger sister Serena won the US Open in 1999. As their semifinal showdown loomed, 20-year-old Venus had yet to land a Grand Slam title.
Most experts tipped Serena to win on form alone but even before the match some respected observers in the know, including players, were already imbuing the contest with its status as an oddity in tennis history.
The result, they said, would be contrived. Dad would give Serena ‘orders’ to lose. It was, quite simply, Venus‘s turn.
Even though Serena had been hitting even hotter than Venus in the run-up, veiled predictions were rife. Reigning champion Lindsay Davenport felt Venus would win ‘for outside reasons’. The 1961 runner-up Christine Janes, British to the core and naturally opposed to skulduggery of any kind, puzzled her fellow Radio 5 Live commentators with the mysterious assertion that the match, which promised to be an all-time classic, would be ‘flat’.
She was spot on. On Thursday 6 July Venus duly romped to victory 6-2 7-6.

Some of the papers were quick to say Serena ‘lost’ it. The Daily Mail pulled few punches: ‘The Williams sisters upset the formbook and sparked a conspiracy theory to rival the assassination of JFK yesterday as hot favorite Serena blundered her way to semifinal defeat,’ it said.

That sort of talk sparked much debate. Camps became split. The match was dissected.
Eighteen-year-old Serena had bludgeoned her way to the semis by dropping only 13 games in five matches en route. Against big sister the unforced errors came thick and fast as she lost another 13 games in this one match. The first set sailed by but, when Venus served two double faults in the first game of the second, a real contest looked on.
Both sisters hit flat out as Serena eased ahead 4-2 and the expectant crowd anticipated a deciding set. Was that the point at which ‘Dad’s orders’ kicked in? Serena promptly lost 11 points in a row, including 5 unforced errors. She trailed 5-4.
Games went to 6-all and a tie-break. Serena led 3-2 before losing the final five points and finishing on a limp double fault.
It was all over. Venus walked sadly to the net, looking rather bemused and concerned and without a flicker of her famous winning smile. Serena fought back tears.

Naturally enough the media asked all the right questions: ‘Was it a family carve up? Had Father issued orders?’ it probed. ‘Not as far as I’m aware,’ replied Venus, with what seemed like a genuine response. Serena somewhat guiltily cast down her eyes and simply said, ‘I can’t answer that question for my family.’

The tennis psychologists drew their own conclusions. Little sister had gone the way of younger siblings the world over, reluctantly accepting to the point of tears that ‘father knows best’.
The headline writers punned themselves silly: ‘THE SISTERS PLAY UGLY AND SAD SERENA MISSES THE BALL,’ barked the Daily Mail.

Only Serena will ever know whether the unforced errors were genuine. What does remain certain is that two days later, Venus beat Lindsay Davenport and lifted her first Grand Slam trophy with such an unbridled display of spontaneous joy that the tennis world was uplifted.
Two days later again the sister act once more hit Centre Court and Serena was back to form as the Williams pairing bounded unfettered to the ladies’ doubles title.
Richard Williams was already on his way home. Both his girls were champions. Mission accomplished.

Michael Stich, Wimbledon 1991

From Boris Becker’s autobiography, The Player:

I was twenty three years old and feeling low again, fed up with this existence in which I did nothing but hit tennis balls. No social life, no friends – the tennis court was the focal point of my world. I could only define myself through tennis: every time I lost, my self-confidence was shot to pieces, and every time I was flying once more. This couldn’t go on for ever.

I was in this state when I prepared for Wimbledon 1991, and this time I had competition from Germany: Michael Stich. I knew him from our Davis Cup team. It hadn’t been easy for him there. We were a tight-knit group and rejected the new boy at first. He in turn appeared to me aloof and reserved, and the others turned their backs on him both during training and at dinner.

So we were already familiar with each other when we met at Wimbledon. We even practiced together, and we spoke every day. This was not how I usually behaved, and in some ways it was dangerous. I need tunnel vision, quarantine.
In the semi-final, Stich defeated Stefan Edberg 4-6 7-6 7-6 7-6. Thanks to Michael, I became world number one again. I’d already had the number one position in January, but I’d been toppled. After Michael’s semi-final I played mine, against David Wheaton, and against all expectations I managed to get into the final once more after beating him 6-4 7-6 7-5.

That evening I sat in my rented house in Wimbledon, on my own again, of course. I cried tears of relief: I was world number one, right at the top. I felt my nervousness disappear. The pressure was off. I decided that evening that if I beat Stich I would retire – at the top, as Wimbledon winner and world number one. The mountaineer Reinhold Messner once said that the most important thing to think about when you’re on the summit is how you’re going to get down again. I didn’t want a fall, but a controlled descent into a different life. Fortunately, it turned out differently. Or should I say unfortunately?

I behaved badly in the match against Stich. I whinged, moaned and complained. Subconsciously I was probably asking myself what was going to happen next. Michael played well but I was exhausted and drained. I had problems from game one. Stich had the first first break point, which he won. He returned my first serves easily; it was as if my mind was somewhere else altogether. I talked to myself constantly, the usual Becker-on-Becker dialogue. In the second set I gave away a 3-1 lead when I lost my service game. If Michael didn’t make any big mistakes, he’d have it in the bag. He wasn’t under any great pressure.

I had no grudge against him – he was a mate from the Davis Cup team. Was it this that held me back? Would it have been different if my opponent had been Edberg? Of course I wanted to win, but we didn’t have our horns locked. It wasn’t all-out war. I couldn’t find my rhythm, and Stich won 6-4 7-6 6-4.

My fellow countryman had won Wimbledon, the second German to do so in the history of the tournament. Von Cramm had reached the finals in 1935, 1936 and 1937, and Bungert in 1967 – the winners had been their British, American and Australian opponents. Michael is the exact opposite of me. Pilic once said, ‘Boris is a world star, and Michael is a world-class player.’ The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote ‘Becker is admired, Stich respected.’ I can’t see inside Michael Stich, but I’m not sure he ever wanted in the limelight. The journalists were persistent, and often cruel:

‘The Germans love Boris because he is how they want to be. They don’t like Stich because he is how they are,’ wrote The Times.

Pat Cash, Wimbledon 1987

Extract from Pat Cash’s autobiography Uncovered:

I felt good when I walked onto court. Lendl and I had just been standing in opposite corners of the corridor, but we hadn’t spoken. I didn’t want to wish him good luck or anything else insincere. The weather was sweltering. Somebody said it was close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit although I didn’t think it ever got that hot in England. The male occupants of the Royal Box were allowed to remove their jackets. Straightaway I put the heat on Lendl, testing him for 13 minutes as he struggled to hold his first service game.

My service was working well. I dropped only six points in six games before the tiebreaker and then moved to a 6-1 lead, giving me five set points. Lendl managed to save four, and though a moment of self-doubt came into my head, I immediately pushed it aside. Lendl had a good block backhand return and a great full swing backhand, but couldn’t play a shot in between. Could I tempt him to go for a full swing on a block backhand shot? I hoped so, and aimed at the spot on the court that wasn’t too wide to give him room to swing, but was sufficiently far enough over to tempt him. Bang! My serve hit the exact blade of grass. He over-swung and directed the backhand out. I was set up, and knew I had the match won. I was loose: the nerves had gone, and my game had switched into overdrive. During the second set I didn’t allow him a point on my serve, and with such an overwhelming lead, nothing was going to slip.

Because of all the rain in England that summer, I hadn’t done as much endurance work as I would have liked; over my career it’s the one facet of my make-up that has needed the most attention. Briefly I became concerned at the unlikely prospect of the match going to five sets, but soon suppressed such negative thoughts.

Lendl broke my serve in the third when I suffered a brief lapse in focus. This quite often happens if you are initially nervous and then relax yourself so much you lose some intensity. The body is slow to react to the brain, and it’s a matter of finding that fine line. Thankfully all the work I did with Jeff once more paid off, and again I snapped myself back to break his serve twice in succession. I remember my last service game and match point like it was only yesterday: I went 40-love up for three match points. Thank God it was an easy game, and I finished it all off with a volley that got behind Lendl and into the open court.

GAME, SET AND MATCH, MR CASH 7-6 6-2 7-5. I was the champion, and pumped my fist in the air. Then I shook Lendl by the hand and he just said well done. I was polite, and I could see his disappointment; but I came out with no more than the standard reply of bad luck. There was nothing else to say, we didn’t like each other, so there would be no sympathy. To me, some of these shows of emotion towards a beaten opponent over the Wimbledon net are false. I think it’s hypocritical to put your arms around each other and have a long chat. I know that’s what Ivanisevic and Rafter did last year, but I don’t buy that sort of show. Anyway, there had been other things planned for several months. I had some climbing to do.

Pat Cash, Wimbledon 1987

Extract from Pat Cash’s autobiography Uncovered:

To my mind I wasn’t just taking on Jimmy Connors, I would also have the crowd against me. He knew every trick to get them on his side, and he would be doing everything possible to break my focus. It didn’t matter that he was nearly thirty-five years of age and hadn’t won a tournament since 1983. Zivojinovic hit twenty-five aces against him, but Jimmy had still won. A round earlier he had fought back from an abysmal start and a two set deficit to beat Mikael Pernfors.

Many people perceived Jimmy to be something of an arsehole, but in my opinion he was a great player. He had such an unusual style, nobody ever played like him and nobody ever will. He was a great athlete, but tough as nails in the bargain. Barkers [Ian Barclay] and I regularly used to watch Jimmy practice and were amazed by his drive. Every point was regarded as the most important of his life: it was inspirational to see, and that was exactly how he played his matches. Maybe that’s why he made so many comebacks and reached the US Open semifinal at the age of thirty-nine. I make no secret of the fact that I was a fan, besides which I ever had any problems with Jimmy on court. Sure, he used to play to the crowd and joke with the line judges in a thinly disguised attempt at giving himself a little rest, but tennis is all about entertainment. The first time we ever played one another was at the Canadian Open in Toronto. I was told he was making faces at me for miss-hitting a ball; I didn’t see him, so I don’t know, and I will keep an open mind. However, it’s fair to admit that opponents can certainly goad me.

Jimmy and I didn’t really socialize. He never seemed to mix with the rest of the guys, but that’s understandable – who would, if they were married to a Playboy centerfold? He had a certain style. In the States he played the true super star by climbing out of his limousine and walking straight into the court. McEnroe doesn’t hold his countryman in such high esteem as I do, but that’s because he is consumed by a competitive jealousy.

I couldn’t have a better start in the semi-final, hitting an ace with the first ball. But Jimmy was intent on being no pushover, and fought fiercely to break back at five all, after I’d served for the first set. Walking back to the baseline to return, I knew this was a crucial moment. I was determined not to fold under the pressure, and broke back immediately before taking control. This was again testimony to the work of Jeff Bond, who had instilled in me that following any loss of concentration, I should immediately snap myself back awake. Late in the third set the fire alarm went off, although I didn’t pay attention. I had moved into a 5-0 lead, dropping just four points. The bell seemed too late to save Jimmy, but he was trying all his tricks with the crowd to disrupt my concentration. I knew he’d spotted I was tense, and I didn’t want him to be inspired into another comeback as he’d managed against Pernfors. Summoning up all my focus, I managed to finish him off. The relief was immense.

Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, Wimbledon 1979

Extract from Tennis’s strangest matches by Peter Seddon:

Saturday 7 July 1979 is a date that still sits proudly in the record books for the legendary Californian Billie Jean King, for it was the day she clinched her twentieth Wimbledon title, a feat which even the most recent legend of the ladies’ game, Martina Navratilova, has been unable to match despite repeated ‘final’ efforts to advance beyond 19. [Navratilova since then equalled King’s record of 20 Wimbledon titles in 2003]
Ironically enough it was the then 22-year old Navratilova who helped King clinch the record that day when they paired to win the ladies’ doubles against Betty Stove and Wendy Turnbull in a 5-7 6-3 6-2 victory.

Remarkable as the feat was, the match would struggle to gain admission to the gallery of strangeness but for the events off-court which surrounded it. From there we enter the world of the positively spooky.
It was another Californian, Elizabeth ‘Bunny’ Ryan, whose record 19 Wimbledon titles King had been trying to pass ever since she equalled it with her singles win over Evonne Goolagong in 1975. But try as she might the record eluded her as she drew a blank in 1976, 1977 and 1978, and at age 35 it seemed it might never happen.

Elizabeth Ryan had looked on rather quizzically as each attempt failed. This gutsy grand old lady of the court, once a veritable Amazon but then well into her eighties, had confined to friends that she hoped to take the record to her grave. It was that sort of winning attitude (and a rather good regular partner by the name of Suzanne Lenglen) that had brought her the record, all comprising double wins, between 1914 and 1934. But it was Lenglen too who generally baulked her in the singles, earning miss Ryan, with her robust approach and famous forehand chop, the title of ‘the best player never to win a Wimbledon singles’.

As each year passed, Miss Elizabeth Montague Ryan, born 1892, became quietly convinced that she would never be surpassed. Living in London she was sprightly enough to get to Wimbledon, her spiritual home, whenever she fancied. She was there on Friday 6 July just 24 hours before her record fell, but she wasn’t there the next day to see Billie Jean make history.

The headline in the Guardian simply read ‘A CHAMPION CHAMPION TO THE END’. For, while walking around the grounds of the All England Club during her Friday visit, the 87-year old champion collapsed from a heart attack and died in the ambulance before reaching hospital. She had first fallen ill watching the antics of McEnroe and Fleming during the men’s doubles final, although there was nothing in their rather modern behaviour to establish cause and effect.

In the Guardian obituary David Gray, secretary of the International Tennis Federation, captured the mood succinctly: ‘Miss Ryan died,’ he wrote ‘as she had played – determined not to be beaten.’
Her niece Miss Elizabeth Partridge, meanwhile, gave a gutsy reaction:

‘I’m glad she didn’t live to see Mrs King’s win. It’s good that it’s happened this way. It’s much better for my aunt that way.’

There is never a good time to call it a day but Elizabeth Ryan’s sense of timing was certainly uncanny as the record ‘passed on’ in the strangest way possible.