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|July 11, 2001||
Goran Ivanisevic returns in triumph
Newly-crowned Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic stripped down to his underwear as he was given a hero's welcome by 150,000 ecstatic fans in his home town of Split on Tuesday.
"I don't know what to say," Ivanisevic said after he fought his way through the crowd to climb on to a stage at the city's waterfront, the "Riva".
"I expected something big, but I really did not expect something like this," he said as took off his clothes.
"There are only 300,000 of us (Split citizens), but man, we are crazier than anyone else," Ivanisevic shouted to the huge crowd that waved banners and flags.
Ivanisevic put on a "Number 3" New Jersey Nets shirt, which belonged to his late friend -- NBA basketball player Drazen Petrovic -- to whom he dedicated his Wimbledon crown.
Many wore T-shirts saying "I am a genius", a famous quote Ivanisevic gave to shrug off critics who claimed he was only a big server.
A Hajduk Split fan threw himself on the Mercedes Benz carrying Ivanisevic, shouting: "You are the symbol of this town!"
"Goran for President," one banner read.
The official programme, including local crooners, pop stars and rap singers ended after two hours but the crowd stayed on to relish the moment.
"This town has never staged such an welcome, not even for Tito," an elderly man said, referring to late President of socialist Yugoslavia Josip Broz Tito.
Toni Kukoc, three-times an NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls, said Ivanisevic's success was one of the greatest achievements in Croatia's 10-year history.
"I take Goran's success as my personal achievement. This is as big as it can get. We sportsmen know all too well how difficult it is to achieve something like this," Kukoc said.
At the city airport, Ivanisevic was hugged by his mother -- who did not travel to England because he had asked her not to -- his sister Srdjana and his girlfriend, model Tanja Dragovic.
Deputy Prime Minister Zeljka Antunovic said Ivanisevic had done a wonderful thing, not only for himself but for the whole of Croatia.
"He showed us that when one has enough persistence and belief in oneself, anything is possible," Antunovic said.
The crowd had roared as a private plane carrying Ivanisevic from England made a celebratory circuit above the city centre.
He then boarded a boat and sailed 10 miles along the scenic Adriatic coast to the harbour, escorted by dozens of tourist and fishermen's boats honking their sirens.
Ivanisevic's heart-stopping final victory over Australia's Pat Rafter on Monday sent hundreds of people into the streets.
Some jumped into the sea with joy, others drove around in cars or on motor-cycles.
Two prominent local journalists shaved off their moustaches, while another vowed to cut his hair for the first time in 10 years in honour of the win.
Ivanisevic's family was swamped with telephone calls and telegrams of support, with one coming from the Hague war crimes tribunal where nine Bosnian Croats await trial.
"We are the proudest people in the world," the nine said through one of their lawyers. "Thank you for the historic success in the name of the Croatian Homeland."
Mail Sports Editor
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