Goran Ivanisevic and Pat Rafter, Wimbledon 2001

Wimbledon 2001: People’s final

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.

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