In 2001, the most improbable major victor in the history of tennis triumphed on the pristine grass courts of the All England Club. Really, Goran Ivanisevic’s Wimbledon win is among the most improbable victories in the entire sporting world.
Ivanisevic had previously reached the Wimbledon singles final in nine years earlier in 1992. He managed to topple Pete Sampras 6–7, 7–6, 6–4, 6–2 in the semifinals before falling to Andre Agassi in the finals. He reached the final for the second time two years later, but again lost, this time to Pete Sampras and lost to Sampras again in 1998.
While he was ranked No. 2 in the world following his defeat to Sampras, his moment in the sun didn’t come until nearly a decade later—when he was ranked outside the top 100. A tall order indeed, but still shorter than these racquet-wielding giants:
At No. 125 in the world, the All England Club gave Ivanisevic a special wildcard entry into the tournament. Thus, it was more than surprising to see him standing across the net from Australian Patrick Rafter in the tournament final.
Dealing with a shoulder injury for most of 2001, the Croatian had been on the verge of retirement.
Yet there he was, up 8-7 over the formidable Rafter in the fifth set, just four points from avenging his trio of Wimbledon defeats. He overpowered Rafter down the set, staving off a run of double faults and toppling the Australian on the fourth match point with a blistering serve Rafter was unable to return.
Ivanisevic dedicated the win to his friend, former NBA talent Drazen Petrovic. Countryman Petrovic died in a car crash in 1993. 10,000 fans turned out to watch his triumph “amid the sort of scenes of wild enthusiasm and rapturous joy that have never been witnessed on the centre court,” Stephen Bierley wrote for The Guardian at the time.
“I was watching too many guys holding that beautiful trophy. I had this (runner-up) plate at home.
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.”
Incredibly, Ivanisevic’s route to the finals was one of the most difficult in recent memory. Before beating Rafter 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, he was thoroughly tested. Only one of the four men he faced en route to Rafter would not at one point sit inside the top four of the world rankings. He toppled Tim Henman, Andy Roddick, Greg Rusedski, and Marat Safin.
Interestingly, Ivanisevic had an inexplicable feeling he would win.
“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.'”
A good sign, indeed. He remains the only man to ever win a Grand Slam event as a wildcard entry.