It’s London 2010, in the dark and chilly depths of December with temperatures hitting minus four.
It’s the Albert Hall, famed for its oval elegance, musical heritage and concert-hall intimacy.
It’s the last place to summon memories of high summer, green lawns, hot sunshine and the intensity of sporting combat. Yet it is the memory of one particular contest, on “people’s Monday,” just miles down the road from Kensington, that fills this gilt and burgundy arena on this particular night.
This is the last venue of the year for the Aegon Masters Champions Tour, and it reunites Pat Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic in London for the first time since one of the most renowned finals in Wimbledon history.
The build-up to the 2001 final at the All England Club had been a heart-stopping affair for the home crowd long before the thousands arrived for the first ever final to begin on a third Monday.
Tim Henman, competing in one of his four Wimbledon semifinals, had seemed to be on his way to a first final when he took the third set 6-0 from a tiring Ivansevic. That was Friday, and that was when the rain washed away an entire weekend, and Henman’s hopes with it.
The two men played for just 51 minutes on Saturday, but time enough for the Croatian to draw level in a tie-break. It took him just 15 minutes on Sunday to finish the job.
Despite their disappointment, fans had begun queuing at five o'clock on Sunday morning for the chance to watch the triumphant Ivanisevic take on everyone’s favorite mate, Pat Rafter.
Wimbledon had never seen a final like it—filled to overflowing with first-come, first-served enthusiasts determined to revel in this unexpected Monday showdown. Chants of “Goran” were countered by roars of “Rafter,” the latter encouraged not a little by the Australian cricket team in the Royal Box. The Aussies were looking for a hat-trick of wins to cap a weekend of triumphs in the Ashes and in the rugby union test series.
As if the circumstances of the match were not enough to make this a unique occasion, both men had strong emotional claims on the title.
The year before, Rafter had defeated Andre Agassi in a stunning semifinal, 7–5, 4–6, 7–5, 4–6, 6–3, to earn himself a tilt at the title against Pete Sampras. The American was playing for a record-breaking seventh title and duly won in four sets.
In 2001, Rafter reached the semifinals of the Australian Open, but this time lost to Agassi in five sets. Then at Wimbledon, Rafter faced Agassi in the semis for the third straight year and won in another five-setter, 2–6, 6–3, 3–6, 6–2, 8–6.
Against a backdrop of rumors that he may retire at the end of the year, and playing wild-card Ivanisevic, this surely would be the sunny Australian’s chance to win the Slam that suited his compact, nimble, serve-and-volley style the best?
The Croat, for his part, was also hugely popular with the British crowd. He had reached the Wimbledon final three times before but had never won. Now injury problems had knocked him down to 125 in the rankings: indeed he had sought medical treatment to his shoulder during his semi against Henman. Everyone knew he was on borrowed time, that this would be his last chance.
So the atmosphere was tense, ebullient, noisy and hushed by turn. Some segments of Centre Court waved Croatian flags, others waved inflatable kangaroos. It was partisan yet amicable, and the match swung back and forth as though the tennis deities could not decide who deserved their blessing.
Eventually Ivanisevic, having double-faulted on two previous championship points, took the plaudits with a 9-7 final set.
Rafter, so rarely unable to smile whatever the provocation, admitted afterwards to a moment of depression but, characteristically, it didn’t last for long. “It’s disappointing, but at the end of the day it was a tennis match and we had fun. It was a bit flat in the locker room with all my mates, but I had a couple of beers and reflected on what a great two weeks I had had.”
The rumors proved to be right—almost. Although he went on to reach three more finals on America’s hard courts, winning in Indianapolis, he didn’t play another match on the tour after the year was over.
Ivanisevic’s recurring injury problems led to surgery in 2002. He was the first defending champion unable to return to Wimbledon since 1926, and never reached another tour final.
Now wind the clock forward to a modest crowd in the miniature, cosy colosseum of the Albert Hall, and the years roll away as the 6’1’’ right-handed Aussie shakes hands across the net with the 6’4” left-handed Croat.
Rafter is still the stockier man, barrel-chested, thick-haired, ruddy-cheeked. Ivanisevic is still lithe, raven-haired, bearded but intensely pale. Yet both have that ability to reach out and touch an audience, one with his warm, relaxed demeanor and the other with a glint of mischief and a heart brandished on his sleeve.
They had been through the same formality this time last year, but in a moment of irony, Ivanisevic had had to retire just five games in, leaving Rafter to go on and win the title in his maiden year. This time, they were both fit, healthy and—inevitably—smiling.
Happy they may have been, and relaxed to the point of horizontal, but once the ball was in play, this was top-flight tennis of a kind that is beginning to show signs of a renaissance.
The Ivanisevic serve is big—it was still routinely topping 120 mph in this match—and is followed by a rush to the net for a sharp put-away volley.
Rafter’s serve is less pacey but precisely placed, difficult to read and often swung wide, and he is on top of the net for the winning volley in a trice.
But such was the retrieving of the two men that the return of serve was as sharp as the serve itself, often landing at the feet of the net-rusher. The truly skilled volleyer can pick such balls up, skim them deep and adjust for the next shoulder-high finish. And Rafter is the consummate master of the technique.
Here was tennis of clarity and simplicity: precise, accurate and varied around the net. Rallies were short—often just three or four shots—but there was no recovery time, no toweling between points, just constant and continuous ball-striking.
What separated this encounter from that famous Wimbledon occasion, though, was the social interaction, both between players and with the crowd.
The court is tightly embraced by the spectators and every comment is crystal clear. This hall is, after all, acoustically shaped for music.
A quip about Australia’s struggles in the Ashes was picked up in flash by Rafter: “I’m having enough trouble here without coping with that, too!”
Ivanisevic, in response to a wrong line call, shouted to the crowd “Never believe an umpire. Ask me, I know when a ball is out!”
They chatted with each other behind the umpire’s chair at each change of ends, joked with the ball girls, mopped up sweat from the court each time they dived headlong to reach a shot, and posed for photos as soon as they spotted a camera in the crowd.
They also—though this will be no surprise—congratulated each other’s winners, called for Hawkeye if they thought they had benefited from a wrong call, and smiled and smiled from the pleasure of the tennis.
The score, for what it was worth, was as tight as could be. A tie-break set apiece, and a championship tiebreak to decide the match: the point at which the Ivanisevic serve touched 128 mph for the first time.
And so it ended for Rafter much as it had done back in 2001, and much as he’d anticipated before the match began. After battling and bantering his way past Henri Leconte the night before, he admitted that his only chance of combating the huge Croatian serve was “probably to wear my cricket gear.” He was, indeed, unable to contain Ivanisevic’s serve once it struck home—as it did at precisely the right moment.
Rafter’s opponent blamed something else entirely for his loss: bananas. “I told him not to eat that banana sandwich before the match!”
No doubt Rafter’s post-game snack will be a little more substantial: and will be helped down with a couple of beers.
And according to his parting shot from one very warm and contented Albert Hall, his mate, Goran, was buying!