His serves flash by at the speed of light. His aces come like meteor showers. Goran Ivanisevic has the most cosmic game in tennis, and recently he has been orbiting high above the rest of the men's tour. Since the U.S. Open, Ivanisevic, a 21-year-old Croatian, has won 15 of 17 matches, and tournaments in Sydney and Stockholm. Until a resurgent Boris Becker derailed him 6-1, 6-2 last Saturday in the semifinals of the $2.1 million Paris Open, Ivanisevic's serve had been broken only once in his last eight matches.
For years Ivanisevic has variously sparkled and struggled on the court. While he reached the finals of Wimbledon this summer and got a bronze medal at the Olympics, he also bombed out at several tournaments from Rome to Flushing Meadow. He is a naturally gifted athlete with an equally natural gift for losing his cool. "Everybody has a certain craziness if he wants to be a superstar," says Ion Tiriac, his manager. "To be an artist, Goran has to create, and play with his emotions. Only insane people don't fear or react or show feeling. Goran has more sense than most of the 'normal' people I know."
"Goran's a typical Dalmatian," says countryman Zeljko Franulovic, the 1970 French Open finalist. The person or the dog? "More the person," says Franulovic, "but he has a few spots on his character."
Ivanisevic grew up in Split, which may account for his personality. Mr. Goran is wired with energy; Dr. Ivanisevic is shy and laconic. "The guy can sleep unbelievable!" says one of Ivanisevic's former coaches, Nikki Pilic, who's now coach of the German Davis Cup team. "He can snooze till 5 p.m. like nothing." Ivanisevic's personal best is 34 hours. "My coach, Bob Brett, wakes up at six in the morning," says Ivanisevic. "He runs, takes shower and calls me at nine and says, 'Isn't it a great day to be alive?" I say, 'I'm still in a coma. I'd rather be dead.' "
The world's No. 4 player and its No. 1 free speaker, Ivanisevic is bursting with a passion rarely seen in tennis these days. "The problem with this game is that players don't express themselves," says John McEnroe. "Goran is one of the few who lays his feelings on the line."
Sometimes, though, he lacks diplomacy. After a straight-set loss to unseeded Alexander Volkov two months ago at the U.S. Open, Ivanisevic cut loose in a long, rambling speech. "Here, food is not good," he said. "If you eat those McDonald cheeseburgers, hamburgers, you go to the hospital forever. But I am eating O.K. I went to some Italian restaurant, but I don't know. Probably the air, something is wrong. I don't know what. I don't hate—I like America, but I don't know. Last year I didn't felt like this year."
In March of this year he suffered an early loss at a tournament in Indian Wells, Calif. Afterward he unwittingly trashed the town. "You see two young people," said Ivanisevic. "Everybody else is 100 years old...150. Every time I think somebody is going to die."
The mayor said Ivanisevic should never be invited back, but local teens stepped in and took him nightclubbing. "I like it there now, but I still will stay away," he says. His dark, inquisitive eyes crinkle merrily. "Maybe next time they cook me for dinner."
Mali Zee, his friends call him, the Little Rabbit. However, at 6'4" and 160 pounds, he looks more like a praying mantis. "Slim legs, slim body carry this light weight," says Tiriac. "He has a perfect physique for tennis today."
Ivanisevic is the leading practitioner of the power game that is threatening to reduce men's tennis to the equivalent of soccer's penalty shoot-out. His style—at least on the faster surfaces—is basically serve-and-serve. "He's got the biggest serve I've ever seen," says McEnroe.
So deceptive is Ivanisevic's low-toss hatchet swing that opponents sometimes can't tell whether the serve has passed them on the forehand or backhand side. "Goran is like a pitcher who can put his 120-mile-an-hour heater on the edge of the plate every time," says U.S. pro David Wheaton. "Plus he's lefthanded."
Ivanisevic's matches average about 23 seconds of action. "You can get rusty playing him," says 13th-ranked Richard Krajicek of Holland. "He'll hit three aces, make two double faults. He's up 40-30, and you haven't touched the ball." At Wimbledon, Ivanisevic nailed 206 aces in seven matches, which included victories over Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras and a five-set loss to Andre Agassi in the final.
As a kid in the Balkans, Ivanisevic admired McEnroe for his temperament as much as for his tennis. "When Mac crazy, he'd get pumped up and play better," he says. "I was opposite. When I crazy, I break the racket and lose. I wanted to play, but something was stopping me." After a tirade in Heidelberg young Ivanisevic was thrown out of the semis of the European 14-and-under championships. "It's nice feeling to break rackets when upset," he says. "So I break many. I am professor in the school of how to break the racket."
Brett, the longtime coach of Becker, was hired by Ivanisevic's father, Srdjan, early last year. Brett has brought a purifying calm to Ivanisevic's game, fine-tuning his volley, his ground strokes and, most important, his esprit d'attaque. Ivanisevic has a reputation of being a bigger tanker than the Exxon Valdez. "There's a thin line between creativity and self-destruction," says Brett. "The idea is not to contain Goran's explosiveness but to channel it in a positive way."
Ivanisevic thinks the responsibility of being a kind of ambassador for his embattled country has matured him. The Olympics were a personal crusade. He carried the Croatian flag in the opening ceremonies and won four straight exhausting five-setters on clay in deadening heat. Although Ivanisevic dropped the first two sets of his quarterfinal match with France's Fabrice Santoro on tiebreakers, he remained firm if not downright implacable. Instead of stewing, he reminded himself who he was playing for.
"Something wild was in me," he recalls. "I told myself I have to win. It doesn't matter if I stay on the court for 10 hours. Croatians are fighting for their freedom, and they will be more motivated to win the war if I win. I start to fight more. I start to think different. I have clear in my mind." He points his two index fingers to his chest. "In my own way, I fight for my country. The racket is my rifle."
Last week he opened fire at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy. His first target was Cedric Pioline, a Parisian who couldn't serve a croque-monsieur at a Montparnasse brasserie. The next duck in the shooting gallery was Krajicek, another practitioner of the modern power game. Ivanisevic outgunned him 6-4, 7-6. "I hit three aces; he hit three aces," he said, yawning. "Very boring."
Next Ivanisevic popped off Wheaton before Becker popped him off. Becker went on to win his third Paris Open title by downing France's Guy Forget 7-6, 6-3, 3-6. 6-3. "I'm feeling O.K. about this defeat," said Ivanisevic afterward. "When you are winning too much, sometimes you think you should never lose again. I am learning to lose."
McEnroe says Ivanisevic's heaters are the biggest serves he has ever seen.