By JOHN ROBERTS
WIMBLEDON - When the first wave of 10,000 spectators dashed to the Centre Court, a flag in one hand, a precious ticket for the men's singles final in the other, Goran Ivanisevic was with them in spirit.
He, too, had been handed a ticket to The Championships, although it did not cost him £40 when he walked through the gates with his wild card three Mondays earlier. He left with £500,000.
Yesterday's fanfare for the common fan deserved to end in a crescendo of triumph for a man like Ivanisevic, who overcame Pat Rafter, of Australia, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7.
When the tournament began, few observers would have questioned the notion that, sadly, the eccentric Croat seemed destined to be remembered as one of the greatest players never to win a major title. Three times he had finished as the runner-up: to Andre Agassi in 1992 and to Pete Sampras in 1994 and 1998.
Pat Rafter, Ivanisevic's opponent yesterday, and one of his friends on the tour, admitted that he was among those who had written him off during the past two years. As Ivanisevic reminded us, when he arrived this time nobody was talking about him, let alone talking about him as a possible contender.
But there he was yesterday, king of the court, the first wild card and lowest ranked player, No 129, ever to win the Wimbledon title - and he had accomplished it in probably the greatest final ever seen, undoubtedly in front of the most exuberant crowd.
"The Duchess of Kent said she wished that every match was like that, as well as the atmosphere," Rafter said. The "atmosphere" was literally created by the atmosphere: but for rain delays - one of which, last Friday, helped ruin Tim Henman's propects of beating Ivanisevic and becoming Britain's first men's singles finalist since 1938 - the tournament would not have spilled over into a third week and a first-come-first served ticket allocation.
But yesterday's thrilling contest was down to the skills and determination of two of the sport's best-loved characters. Rafter, the winner of the United States Open in 1997 and 1998, was so keen to atone for his disappointment after losing to Sampras in last year's Wimbledon final that he virtually scheduled his year to ensure he would be fit to compete in what may prove to be his last visit to the All England Club.
Ivanisevic, like Rafter, has suffered from pain in his serving shoulder - hardly surprising, considering that he has been booming down aces at 210 km/hr for 12 years - and intends to undergo surgery at the end of the season.
To say that Ivanisevic has been driven this past fortnight is to underestimate his faith in the force of his game and the power of the Almighty. From the start, the contest was played in a frenzied atmosphere, and although the crowd's enthusiasm was generally disciplined, stray voices calling out in support of one man or the other as the were about to serve, frequently caused detractions. The players were patient in most instances, clearly enjoying the football-style crowd involvement, a special atmosphere usually confined to Davis Cup ties in tennis terms.
There was a fascinating symmetry to the first three sets, each player taking the initiative. Ivanisevic, breaking in the second game, was 3-0 up within 10 minutes and secured the opening set after only 29 minutes. Rafter broke for 2-0 in the second set, Ivanisevic double-faulting to 30-40, and levelled the match after 59 minutes.
Ivanisevic called for trainer Bill Norris to treat his shoulder after the fifth game of the third set. But any misgivings were premature.
Ivanisevic broke for 4-2 when Rafter allowed a backhand return to drift by, not realising it would land good. The Australian was unable to make an impression on his opponent's serve in the remaining three games of the set. So, after 90 minutes, Ivanisevic seemed in control of his destiny - only to unravel in a temper-tantrum in the sixth game of the fourth set. Having saved a break point with an ace, Ivanisevic was angered when a foot-fault was called on his first serve while attempting to save a second set point.
He became almost apoplectic when his second serve was called out. The ball looked wide in the television replay, but not to Ivanisevic. Broken for 2-4, he threw his racket, kicked the net, and raged at the officials.
"I was 30-0 up and played some stupid shots to put myself in trouble," he said afterwards, but that ugly lady gave me my first foot-fault of the whole tournament, and then I hit a huge second serve, and a guy who looked like a little faggot, called it out."
Ivanisevic was broken a second time, at 5-2, as Rafter squared the match. The Croat regained his composure, and became his usual entertaining self.
The final set unfolded in a bowl of noise, with competing chanting of "Rafter!" and "Goran!" The tension spread to the court as the games sped by with plenty of near misses but no sign of a break point until Rafter, serving at 7-7 was passed by two forehand returns off second serves.
Ivanisevic, serving for the match at 8-7, was taken to deuce, and twice double-faulted on match points as his nerves began to jangle. Rafter lobbed him to save a third match point, but netted a return on the fourth, as Ivanisevic fell to the ground with joy and turned, face-down on the grass which on which he had been frustrated so often in the past.