Ivanisevic shines in Wimbledon return


WIMBLEDON, England -- Retirement will not be a cruelly irrelevant existence for Goran Ivanisevic.

"Just want to have fun and enjoy," he said Monday.

It shouldn't be a problem. There is his partner of five years, model Tatjana Dragovic, and their 14-month-old daughter, Amber. There is his 70-foot yacht, Veselka II, and the lure of the boundless Mediterranean and Adriatic seas.

But first, there was the unfinished business of defending his 2001 Wimbledon title -- two years late.

"I could have stayed home and said nobody defeated me after I won in 2001, but I think I owe it to myself to play one more Wimbledon," Ivanisevic, 32, explained last week. "I want to finish my career at the best place.

"We have a special relationship, me and Wimbledon. It's going to be very difficult, the last time, walking to the net, shaking hands and that's it. No more professional tennis."

Ivanisevic admits, in retrospect, that he probably should have retired after winning his only Grand Slam singles title. But he pressed on and then injuries intervened and, well, there he was Monday walking out into the emerald aura of Centre Court hoping to recapture some of the stuff that lifted him -- and everyone who watched -- so high three years ago.

And so, that retirement will have to wait for at least another day.

Ivanisevic, hitting vintage, if slightly slower left-handed serves, overpowered Russian Davis Cup player Mikhail Youzhny 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2. Youzhny isn't exactly a household name, but at 21 he was the tournament's No. 31 seed. When Ivanisevic emerged from the tunnel for the third time on a dank day visited by rain, he was incandescent.

"Sun was shining," Ivanisevic said. "I was shining. Third set was just brilliant, too good."

It was a golden day for oldies at the All England Club. Martina Navratilova, playing her first singles match in a decade -- and, also, potentially her last -- won her match, against Catalina Castano, 6-0, 6-1.

Does Ivanisevic feel a kinship to Navratilova, a fellow lefty who is 47?

"I cannot compare myself," Ivanisevic said. "She is other level, from another planet. She's 48, 50. She won six-love, six-one. It's too good.

"She is one of the few women tennis players I respect. I have to admit, she's really great. She's really looking good, playing good, running. I mean [she's] 48. Probably I going to be in a wheelchair at 48."

This may only be a slight exaggeration. Shoulder surgery prevented him from playing Wimbledon in 2002, and he missed last year's tournament after cutting his foot on a shell while wading in the ocean in Miami. His left shoulder is "almost OK," according to the patient, but it could disintegrate at any moment.

"I'm not going to say is too good because next day I'm not able to serve," said Ivanisevic, smiling.

In the button-down, sometimes colorless world of professional tennis, Ivanisevic has always been thoroughly and utterly different.

"A lot of guys, they're like robots," Ivanisevic has said. "No emotions. You don't see anything."

With Ivanisevic, you see everything. There is, as Ivanisevic likes to point out, Good Goran, Bad Goran, Emergency Goran -- a man for every season, a Goran for every eventuality.

He talks to himself. He gestures to the crowd and, more often, to the heavens. He loves to show off his soccer skills when tennis balls roll his way. All of this was on display Monday as Ivanisevic received enough fortunate net cords to last a career. At one point, he kissed the net where his ball brushed it and landed safely.

There was another piece of luck, too. Usually, the defending men's champion is the first match on Centre Court, followed by a women's match. This time, Ivanisevic was moved up to the second match. Was it to accommodate the soccer-mad Croatian, who was aching to watch the heavily anticipated Croatia-England Euro 2004 match later that night?

"Another great gift from the Wimbledon committee," Ivanisevic said. "I have to say thank you so I can watch the game."

The benevolent folks at the All England Club saw their favor returned. Ivanisevic channeled the spirit of his run in 2001, when he tore through Andy Roddick, Tim Henman -- in a wet semifinal match that required three days -- and, finally, Patrick Rafter.

"It's the first time actually I walk on Centre Court first round in my whole Wimbledon career," Ivanisevic said. "It's new, nice. Grass is very green. Unbelievable feeling, you know, after last time I play on Centre Court. I had a great memory.

"Today, I played another great match. You cannot play bad on this court. You can be nervous, but bad, is impossible to play bad."

And when he walked out for the first time in three years, Ivanisevic smiled and said to himself, "This is why I kept on playing for the last two years."

"Yes," he said. "That was the moment I walked in, when I hit some great serves, great volleys. When I saw this crowd, then I said that was worth it or these two years, struggling, doing therapy, all kinds of therapy, being up and down, thinking to stop. But it was worth it. It was worth it to fight and come back and be today on the Centre Court."

Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.