In an era when the game’s biggest rivals politely shun any hint of inflammatory sparring words and quickly make a lunge for the underdog tag should talk of favouritism be bandied about, one of the game’s greatest firebrands, Goran Ivanisevic, tips his hat to the likes of Stan ‘the Man’ Wawrinka doing his bit to shake things up.
Before cementing his standing among the game’s purists with that watershed Wimbledon triumph over Pat Rafter in 2001, the hot-headed Croat was popular as much for his explosive meltdowns and quick wit as his booming lefty serve.
Less than a year prior to his All England Club triumph, he had to withdraw mid-match at a tournament in Brighton after smashing every racquet in his bag. Any condemnation for poor sportsmanship is long forgotten. Mention of the story these days and it’s more likely to leave people grinning and asking – what has happened to the game’s larger-than-life characters?
Ivanisevic – who is partnering Cedric Pioline in the legends’ doubles at Australian Open 2013 – maintains it’s a debate in which you’re never going to please everyone.
“I don’t understand the crowd. They say we need characters; everybody says, then you break the racquet then they boo you,” he says.
“Everybody gets unhappy, I don’t know why they’re unhappy. If I want to break racquet, it’s my racquet, who cares? I change the racquet.
“You know, it’s a very strange situation but ... it’s good to have new guys, new challengers.”
He welcomes challengers to the established Djokovic/Federer/Murray/Nadal quartet at the top of men’s tennis such as Switzerland’s Wawrinka, who worked the crowd into a frenzy and went within a whisker of knocking defending men’s champion Djokovic off his perch on Sunday night.
“I think you need somebody who can maybe scare a little bit these [top] four guys, like Wawrinka saying [to Djokovic] ‘I can play tennis, I can beat you’. OK, it was very close tennis. We need guys like that,” he said.
Never one to mince his words, and with a dry wit conducive to the psyche in this part of the world, Ivanisevic didn’t dwell on who he least liked seeing across the net in his heyday.
“Actually I hate [Pete] Sampras because he ruined my life. I lost so many matches,” he said.
“But I loved everyone. Actually I didn’t like [Jim] Courier. I didn’t have a good record against him, but I like [Andre] Agassi, I liked to play [Boris] Becker, [Stefan] Edberg. There were so many interesting players to play back then.”
Often singled out as one of the prime reasons for the slowing down of the game Ivanisevic took the common line that it was impossible to compare the men’s game to that of even the mid-’90s, when the serve-volleyer was still prevalent.
In another not-so-subtle dig at his great adversary Sampras, the Croatian was not prepared to bear the brunt of the argument.
“I played Sampras 15 times; we never had a rally more than four times and they talking they changed the rules because of me? I don’t think so,” he said.
“That era you have Boris Becker, you have [Michael] Stich, [Richard] Krajicek, you have Sampras, you have me ... and the courts were bullet-fast.”
When breaking down the make-up of the current crop at the top, Ivanisevic drew distinct lines between three groups.
“You have tour with the four guys, then you have second tour with [David] Ferrer, [Juan Martin] del Potro, [Tomas] Berdych and [Jo-Wilfried] Tsonga, and then have a tour with the rest of the guys, so it’s kind of funny,” he said.
“You all know who’s going to be in the semi, in the final, more or less, so I would like to see one of these guys – maybe Berdych, del Potro – maybe stepping in, try to do some damage.”
With scant room for newcomers in the so-called top two groups, Ivanisevic gives Australia’s great prospect and his close friend, Bernard Tomic, a realistic shot at shaking things up by year’s end.
“It just depends on him, but the guy’s definitely top 10,” he said.
“He’s one year older, more mature, knows what he wants. He played much better against [Roger] Federer this year than last year, which is great. So definitely I think he and [Milos] Raonic can be new top 10 guys.”