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.