The 1992 Wimbledon men’s singles finals was an eyeopener and a life lesson for me, in many ways. It wasn’t just a tennis match. On the one hand was the big serving Croatian, Goran Ivanisevic, who was the new sensation after hitting record number of aces. He had just beaten Pete Sampras, the man to rule Wimbledon that decade after that in the semis while hitting 36 aces in that match, and had beaten Stefan Edberg in the quarters. On the other, was the long haired charming Vegas boy, Andre Agassi who was gunning for his first major championship on a surface that was as comfortable for him as a desert would be for a dolphin. So he was the underdog, though he had beaten “Boom Boom” Boris Becker in the quarter finals and John McEnroe in the semis.The odds were heavily in favour of Goran for his power hitting and mastery on grass and also due to the fact that he had not lost a set while beating Andre in the previous two occasions. The first set went for a tiebreaker and was won by Goran. The next two went to Andre before he lost the fourth heavily to Goran. The match then went to the final set with everyone by then rooting for Andre as it was like a David vs Goliath tussle. Agassi was up 5-4 in the final set with Ivanisevic serving. Two double faults made it 0-30 but Goran rallied to pull it back to 30-all before Andre made a mid court forehand return to reach match point. Under pressure, Ivanisevic missed the first serve again and in came the second serve and Agassi hit it as hard as possible for a winner and sealed the game, set and championship. The print media later reported the victory as “Agassi and Ecstasy”.What made that match memorable was, here was a guy who was a clay court specialist, who altered the “serve and run to the net” style of playing followed by grass court champions like Edberg and Becker, by staying on baseline and hitting winners, and was up against the guy with the most powerful serve in the circuit. He had just lost the French Open finals to Jim Courier, where he was favoured to win and was sulking. Yet his self belief and sure shot returns made him a winner in the end and opened doors for a new possibility for men to win grand slams which was a distant dream after Rod Laver because of turf specialisation. It was a game of skill versus power, self belief versus self doubt, and returns versus serves. The return won and what powerful forehand returns they were.
Agassi simply played to his opponent’s strength and made it a weakness. When Goran hit big, he returned more powerfully, and when he tried bigger, he started to make unforced errors. In fact Agassi induced those errors as Goran was not expecting somebody to give such powerful returns to his serves. His only approach was to hit even bigger and hence made even more errors. Before the match, McEnroe had told Agassi to ignore Ivanisevic’s inevitable aces and wait for those rare opportunities to break his serve. And that was exactly what Andre did. He was not shaken by those big aces but was waiting for those opportunities to return and return he did even more forcefully to win the match.
What Goran did in that match is what we tend to do in many situations in life. In our anxiety to hit aces and sixers we lose sight of what is truly important, which is to win the match. Our enthusiasm and the adrenalin rush in hitting aces and sixers make us suddenly feel invincible and we start to try hitting more and in the process commit more double faults or get out in cricketing parlance by trying to hit out. It is actually more like a pace bowler in his enthusiasm to bowl faster, bowling more no balls and wides then eventually getting worn out and Agassi was like the batsman who waits for those no balls to do his free hits and leaves the bouncers alone. Agassi was more cool and was steadfast on winning the match rather than trying to hit aces or show who is more powerful. And win he did eventually, in style. In the process also handed a great lesson to us that there is no point in settling for a sub-optimal goal (like hitting record number of aces) when you have a greater purpose (to win championship) in life.
Trivia: The semis in the 1992 championships was the last Wimbledon John McEnroe ever played. Goran went on to lose the finals again in 1994 and 1998, both times to Pete Sampras and eventually won in 2001 as an unseeded player. The first ever wild card entry player to win the championship beating Pat Rafter in the finals.