The unlikely GOAT-whisperer
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Goran Ivanisevic has managed the transition from maverick box-office attraction to astute coaching mind with surprising ease and considerable success

November 26, 2022 12:54 am | Updated 12:55 am IST

Demanding but rewarding: Goran Ivanisevic says working with a ‘genius’ like Novak Djokovic comes with a lot of stress. But it has forced him to improve as a coach.

Demanding but rewarding: Goran Ivanisevic says working with a ‘genius’ like Novak Djokovic comes with a lot of stress. But it has forced him to improve as a coach.

Making a difference: Ivanisevic has managed the remarkable feat of enhancing one of the best-formed games in tennis history: he has improved Djokovic’s serve.

Making a difference: Ivanisevic has managed the remarkable feat of enhancing one of the best-formed games in tennis history: he has improved Djokovic’s serve.

Trophy hunters: The Djokovic-Ivanisevic partnership has realised six Major titles, including three at Wimbledon.

Trophy hunters: The Djokovic-Ivanisevic partnership has realised six Major titles, including three at Wimbledon.

Of all the big stars who dominated the tennis world and popular culture in the 1990s, Goran Ivanisevic was the one you would have least expected to become a successful, full-time coach. 

A volatile, racquet-smashing maverick with a thunderbolt serve, Ivanisevic could both toy with the best and turn into a sputtering mess — often in the same match. This penchant for soaring one moment and crashing and burning the next made him a box-office attraction. 

Just to be clear, he was an accomplished tennis player. A former World No. 2, he won the 2001 Wimbledon championship in one of sport’s most heart-warming fairy-tale runs. 

But the ‘Crazy Croat’, as he was known, was perceived as a natural, mercurial talent — usually not the type, after retirement, to choose the coaching route, which requires patient man-management, painstaking attention to detail and a stomach for the grind of touring life.

And yet Ivanisevic has had a flourishing coaching career since starting in 2013. 

He was in Novak Djokovic’s corner in Turin when the 35-year-old claimed a record-equalling sixth ATP Finals title after a seven-year gap. Having joined forces in 2019 — at a time when the Serb’s invincibility cloak had slipped — the Djokovic-Ivanisevic partnership has realised six Major triumphs (three at Wimbledon, two at the Australian Open, one at Roland Garros) in 11 attempts.

How it started

Arguably as impressive, or perhaps even more, was Ivanisevic’s role in compatriot Marin Cilic breaking through at the 2014 US Open. Cilic, who became only the second Croatian man after his then coach to win a Grand Slam, did it at a time when Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic had won 31 of the 35 preceding Majors.

Cilic had begun working with his onetime hero at the lowest point of his career in 2013. He had served out a controversial doping ban for a banned stimulant that he said he had ingested unwittingly in an over-the-counter supplement. 

Cilic always possessed big weapons but until then appeared to lack belief against the big guns. He also had a tendency of lapsing into passive tennis. Ivanisevic convinced him to adopt a more aggressive style and use his forehand to dictate terms more frequently.

“Goran has brought lots of knowledge, the differences are small pieces in my game which really fit,” Cilic said. “I have the belief to be more aggressive and there is joy on the practice courts.”

Ivanisevic, who famously spoke of three Gorans (Good, Bad and Emergency) working together during his Wimbledon triumph, joked about how he had had to downsize to manage the logistics of coaching. “It will be too much to travel with three Gorans,” he said. “One Goran and one Marin [is] perfect… that’s why he won a Grand Slam.”

The manner of Cilic’s title win enhanced Ivanisevic’s reputation — especially with Stefan Edberg (Federer), Boris Becker (Djokovic) and Michael Chang (Kei Nishikori) coaching the other semifinalists. Winning this blockbuster backroom battle was considered quite the coup.

Asked how he had found his feet so early as a coach, Ivanisevic was typically candid. “I was a little bit lost in the beginning,” he said. “It took me a couple of months. I didn’t know what to say and when to say it. I spoke to other coaches and slowly found my way. You need to be patient and believe in your player. Coaching is not easy. I don’t have racquets to break any more.” 

After parting ways with Cilic, Ivanisevic had stints with Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic without the same level of success. A call from Djokovic ahead of the 2019 Wimbledon championship paved the way for one of tennis’ most rewarding alliances in recent times.

“He called me for a reason, he did not call me because we speak the same language,” Ivanisevic told Tennis Majors. “Novak and I share the same mentality. I have been through a lot of things Novak is going through on the court, so I am in a better position to understand certain things.”

How it’s going

Ivanisevic shared duties with Marian Vajda before becoming Djokovic’s sole coach. Working with one of the greatest players of all time (GOATs) has its perks. But it’s challenging. “To be honest, it is very stressful. People think my job with Novak is easy, but it is not. I give you my job for one week and you see if you are going to give me back my job or not,” Ivanisevic told Tennis.com.

“It is great to work with such a great athlete, but very demanding also. A final is not good enough. We only count victories. We only count Slams. That is huge stress. But I choose that. I love it. It pushes me to learn more and be a better coach and a better person. I really enjoy it.”

Ivanisevic has managed the remarkable feat of improving one of the best-formed games in tennis history. He has made a difference to the Serb’s serve, something other players, including the big-serving John Isner, have noted.

“Djokovic is a perfectionist, a genius who wants to improve every day,” Ivanisevic said. “There are situations where I feel that something in his game is perfect, but he does not. It is not about me, it is about him, but we need to find a balance, so that he does not go into the extreme — when something is perfect, you cannot improve it any further, you can only go backwards, at least that is how I see it. Many times we disagree, which is normal in a coach-player relationship, but we share the same goal — that he improves every day and that he is happy on the court. 

“Sometimes we disagree about the serve, for example. The serve is the hardest shot in tennis — if you think about too many things, it just can’t work. You need to focus on one thing, two at best, and then every aspect of the serve — and there are five or six of them — will come together. He wants it to be perfect, but it is impossible. If he misses by a small margin, he wonders, ‘Why?’, but it happens; I had the best serve in the world and still had bad days.

“But all right, that is just who he is, it needs to be perfect for him, that he feels it. In these three years, I have learned a lot from Novak and I have improved tremendously as a coach.”

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