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TENNIS

Ivanisevic Still Is Made for This Racket

March 15, 2001|BILL DWYRE

INDIAN WELLS — He's back! The king of big serves, one-liners and self-loathing has returned to the tennis tour. The man who represents an oasis of personality in a desert of bland is with us again.

He won his second consecutive match at the Tennis Masters Series event here Wednesday, then walked into a room for a news conference. Grizzled reporters wept with joy. After days of "I had my chances" and "I served pretty well," there was hope again, new meaning to life.

His name is Goran Ivanisevic and he is the Jay Leno of the tennis tour, which needs him a lot more than NBC needs Leno. He is from Croatia, but has spent time on the moon. Of the several thousand men and women, girls and boys who play pro tennis and are asked to do interviews afterward, Ivanisevic is the only one who wants to.

"When I am no longer playing," he said, "I will miss you guys."

Lumps formed in throats.

Ivanisevic is no chump as a player. Correction. Last year, he was a chump as a player. His record was 14-22 and his ranking, which earlier in his career had gone all the way to No. 2, was No. 129.

It was a disaster for a three-time Wimbledon finalist, still only 29. He played a tournament in England, hoping to get enough points to qualify directly into the main draw of the Australian Open, something for only the top 128 in the world. He got into the match that would have done it for him, had he won, but instead, he blew his cool during the match, smashed the racket he was using, then went to his bag and smashed two more before realizing, as the last one hit the hard court, that he had no more.

The umpire made his very British announcement: "Mr. Ivanisevic is defaulted, due to lack of suitable equipment."

Wednesday, Ivanisevic shared memories of the moment with his friends in the press.

"It's a good thing, you know, what I did, I think," he said. "It's something that people are going to remember. Nobody did that before."

No, nor has anybody who has won nearly $20 million in his career flown 25 hours from Europe to Australia to play in the pre-event qualifier, lost in the first round to somebody named Peter Luxa and turned right around and go home.

"I didn't tank the match, but I was not there," he said. "That was pretty stupid, pretty bad."

He said he decided, after that, to get his head on straight, which is no small trick for somebody who has been driving the wrong way in traffic all his life. It should come as no surprise that he is left-handed.

This is, if you remember, the same Goran Ivanisevic who, during some frustrating days at the tournament here a few years ago, said he would never come back and play in the desert again "because I go out to dinner and there are all these old people at the restaurant and I worry that they will die in their meals."

With that, he became a legend in the Coachella Valley. Little old ladies came to his matches to cheer him on, telling him with glee afterward that they had lived through it. Other elderly made T-shirts for their nights of dining out. They proudly displayed them on the way out. Their T-shirts read: "We made it."

Tournament Director Charlie Pasarell got Ivanisevic back into town by giving him a wild-card entry.

"It is really nice for him," said Ivanisevic, who meant of him. "It's nice the people still believe I can do some damage, when I clear my mind."

The catch, of course, is those last five words. So far, Ivanisevic has cleared his mind twice here, upsetting last year's tournament runner-up and ninth-seeded Thomas Enqvist in the second round Wednesday.

For now, the future is unlimited, meaning for those of us with pads and pencils and the greatest need, every win means another news conference.

Other topics touched on Wednesday by Ivanisevic were:

* His fear that Russian Marat Safin may eventually catch and pass his records for rackets broken and money fined on the tour: "He has potential. And he is young."

* His disgust at the wimpy way most players throw their racket: "When you throw the racket, you throw the racket. I mean, you break. You have to smack it, to get anger."

* How he will handle fears of mad cow disease when he goes to Europe to play: "I cannot survive without meat. If I die, I die like a man."

When it ended, we ink-stained wretches filed out of the room, tears of joy still welling in our eyes. There is no crying in tennis, except when Goran returns to us.

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