Ivo Karlovic as Religious Experience

Almost everyone who loves tennis dislikes watching Ivo Karlovic. There are many times, after you’ve watched the Croatian hit unreturnable serves and a player fail to return them, when the viewer turns the television off or the TV director cuts to a different match. That’s just how it goes.


It’s the First Round of the 2017 Australian Open. Ivo Karlovic is up 3-2 against Horacio Zeballos in the fifth set and he’s manufactured a break point. Earlier in the afternoon, Karlovic fell behind two set to love but has battled back and pushed it to an unlikely decider. Zeballos looks shaky. An old school Argentine clay courter, Zeballos does that weird thing where he wiggles slightly before spinning a serve into the court. Karlovic swings at it and for a half second it looks like he may have gotten the ball in. That’s a hilarious fantasy. The ball flies wildly out of play and Zeballos saves the break. Ivo Karlovic would not have another break point chance for another 35 games and over two hours of real time.

Journalistically speaking, Ivo Karlovic is old news. He is, at age 38, the oldest player in the top 250 of the ATP Tour. Standing at 6-foot-11, he has the best serve of anyone on the ATP Tour. Maybe the best serve ever, depending on what you think of Ivanisevic, Roddick or Sampras. For most of his career, Karlovic has been treated like an athletic oddity and an awkward giant. He also hasn’t been that successful, especially for someone hanging around at age 40. He jump-started his career by knocking out the reigning Wimbledon Champion, Lleyton Hewitt, in the first round at Wimbledon 2003. But in the last 17 years, he’s never won a title above a 250. He’s only reached one Grand Slam quarterfinal in his career (2009 Wimbledon). His most noteworthy accomplishment on the ATP Tour may be having some of the best Tweets written by a professional tennis player.

So why is this semi-obscure servebot still fascinating to me?


After two hours and 39 minutes, Karlovic finally forces his second break point of the set at 21-20. He’s already saved a break point of his own, the only one of the entire 22-20 final set. On the second match point, Zeballos smacks a shot and charges the net. Karlovic hits a baseline lob that falls right into Zeballos’ hitting zone. But maybe because the match has gone on for five hours, Zeballos’ overhead flies long and Karlovic wins the match 6-7 (8), 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 22-20. Karlovic ends the match with 75 aces.

I thought about that match again on Tuesday night as Karlovic once again went the distance in an early round in Melbourne. Once again, he faced a relatively poor server, even worse than Zeballos really, in Yuichi Sugita of Japan. Karlovic is 6-foot-11. Sugita is 5-foot-8, and that’s generous. Sugita, the 29-year-old Japanese veteran on the other side of the net, has aged in the way that veteran tennis players age, with an incredibly healthy body but a weathered, bearded face that has seen 8-10 years of nonstop airports, hotels and time zones take its toll. Predictably, Karlovic looks even more grizzled. The Croatian’s hair is receding, his beard has visible traces of gray. His serve, however, is as lively as ever.

There is nothing fun about watching Ivo Karlovic. Here’s my attempt at a rhapsodic, Wallace-esque description of his play.

Karlovic’s tosses the ball into the air and smacks with at an angle only conceivable to a 6-foot-11 human. The ball whistles through the air, darting at Sugita’s racket without mercy or trepidation. Sugita swings and misses. That’s it.

Sugita’s slow second serve barely crosses the tape. Karlovic saunter over and sets up to hit the ball, lowering his frame to set up for an enormous forehand. He smacks it two feet wide. That’s it. That’s the end.

Also, a good returner most definitely can break Karlovic, sometimes with ease. Any time Karlovic hits a groundstroke, you fear the ball will careen into the seats or the bottom of the net. His backhand, a tame one-hander that you rarely see, is nonexistent. Usually he slices a completely flat ball just over the tape. If Karlovic had an average backhand, say a Yuichi Sugita backhand with a compact motion and lots of topspin, he would be much better. Although Karlovic’s half-joke that he would never lose a match if he had learned how to hit a two-handed backhand is an overstatement, he would definitely be a fringy top 10 guy and a formidable opponent on grass. Ivo Karlovic with a mediocre backhand is essentially a taller Nick Kyrgios. That’s some serious potential.

I think Karlovic fascinates me because of his limitations. Karlovic is a unique athlete in that he fundamentally changes his sport whenever he plays. Much like Stephen Curry completely changes the geometry of professional basketball when he shoots from long distance, Karlovic’s impossibly good serve changes how tennis is played. Federer and Nadal, the two best examples of this concept, change the geometry of tennis through ludicrous angles and varied shotmaking that makes no sense until their artful grace/raw skill powers the ball for a clean winner. They take what is conventional and use their physical gifts to refine conventionality into something even more dangerous. Karlovic takes what is conventional and uses his physical gifts to create something alien, even unfair. Karlovic’s first serve attempts to remove geometric conceptions from the court entirely. There is only one angle that matters, and it’s something you cannot fathom or return when he does it properly.

Usually, these game-changing athletic innovations lead to transcendent greatness in the mould of Wilt Chamberlain, Usain Bolt, etc. It’s a testament to the sport of tennis that even though Karlovic truly has a weapon on the astral plane, and yet he cannot get higher than No. 14 in the world or win any of the game’s major titles. Karlovic’s ideal game should be the highest conception of tennis. He saves all energy. He never gets broken. But he can’t win consistently. He can’t even win tiebreaks at a half-decent level. In a team sport, you can have one elite talent and become integral to success, even an all-time great1. In tennis, your one elite talent doesn’t even guarantee you’ll stick around. There are plenty of Challenger players with incredible serves2 who spend years yo-yoing between 100 and 300. Even a guy like Jerzy Janowicz, who tumbled down the rankings due to injury, cannot ride his serve back up the ranks (he’s currently No. 124 in the world).

Thus, Karlovic’s longevity and ability to stick in the top 50 for so long may actually prove his serve is just miles better than anyone else. At age 38, he would not even be in the top 400 with his rallying ability. That’s what keeps Karlovic interesting, the fact that he can be so damn good and so horrendously bad simultaneously. I never want him to retire because tennis needs more oddballs, more strange and beautiful methods of playing the game that make no sense. Other sports are rapidly eliminating their oddballs, turning everyone into clones that play in the same style. Tennis remains a laboratory where many different styles on differing surfaces can make you millions of dollars. The clay season is basically a different sport from grass court tennis, and yet it’s still compelling. I don’t want guys like Isner and Karlovic to go away, even if we’ve seen that their ceilings are limited. 


Karlovic saves two set points to bring up the 964th tiebreaker of his career in the first set against Sugita, which he wins 7-3. Amazingly, despite having the best serve you can possibly imagine, Karlovic’s career tiebreak record (with major Davis Cup ties included, more on that later) coming into this match is 499-464, a 51.8 percent success rate. At the ATP Tour level, he’s even worse, coming in at 360-354 (just over 50 percent). The other noted “servebot” on tour, the agonizing John Isner, has a record of 400-253 (61.2 percent) and 356-217 (62.1 percent) at Tour-level. Karlovic’s inability to win tiebreaks, especially deciding set tiebreaks in lower events, has cost him dearly throughout his career. It costs him again in the second set, as Sugita wins the breaker 7-3.

The third set becomes another serving contest, but Karlovic is clearly on a misison. He hits 14 aces in the set and breaks Sugita to love at 5-5, winning the second 7-5. At this point, he has held serve in 18 straight games. If he can just sneak a tiebreak in the fourth, this match will be over. Instead, Sugita finally shows off some of his defensive skills and breaks Karlovic for the set at 4-5 in the fourth. Karlovic and Sugita head to a fifth set without a tiebreak, the exact same scenario that occurred to Karlovic last year with Zeballos.


The closest Ivo Karlovic came to winning a 500-level title came in the 2016 Washington Open. Karlovic, at 37, was in the midst of one of the best stretches of his career. After winning a 250 even in Newport, he came to Washington and beat three top 30 players without dropping a set (Johnson, Sock and Tomic). Heading into the final against Gael Monfils, he had not dropped serve once, saving 10-of-10 break points en route to his first career 500 final.

When Monfils double faulted at 5-5, 15-40 at in the first set, Karlovic took the first set. At 4-4 in the second set, he came back from 40-15 down to break Monfils again, a stunning achievement for him. After the changeover, Karlovic was ready to serve for the biggest title of his entire career. After 16 years, he needed to hold one damn time.

0-15, 0-30. Monfils barely gets his racket on a return and it floats into the corner. 0-40. Oh no. Not like this. Karlovic isn’t having it. Three serves later, and he’s back at deuce. There’s something tragic when a player works to bring 0-40 to deuce and gets broken anyway. This may have been the most tragic of all. Karlovic lost the point to bring up another break point for Monfils. On the next point, he hit a fantastic serve and moved into the net for an easy volley, only to send the drive volley a few inches long on the baseline.

Karlovic just stands there with his hands on his hips. In the most important game of his career to date, after holding serve the entire week, he didn’t get it done. He didn’t get it done. And perhaps, for all my talk about geometry and tactics, Ivo Karlovic just couldn’t mentally get it together to serve out the match. Maybe, in the end, it’s not his lack of a two-hander or the inability to hit a groundstroke, it’s his inability to play well when it counts.

Karlovic loses the breaker by slamming a short forehand into the net. You can see it in the highlight video. He swings his racket angrily at the floor, but he doesn’t toss it, like any rational person would have. He goes back to his chair. He has a love hold to start the third. In the third game, he double faults at 15-30 to bring up two break points. He hits another decent serve and comes to the net at 30-40. Monfils return dips at Karlovic’s legs. If he were two inches shorter, it would be an easy volley to control. He should’ve probably made the shot anyway. The volley curls, spins, it looks like it might the baseline, but it lands out. Monfils wins the match 5-7, 7-6 (6), 6-4.

Karlovic would win another 250 title in Mexico the next week as consolation, but that month, so far, has been the last great stand in his seemingly endless career. He’s fallen down to No. 89 in the world after taking the Asian swing off in 2017.


But who gives? He has made over $8.7 million in his life. He is the oldest man to make the Third Round of the Australian Open in 40 years. His superweapon serve may not win, but it’s good enough to keep him in the top 100 until his arm falls off. He is doing what he loves. In a parallel to Federer, his direct contemporary, he truly loves to play tennis. In April 2013, came down with viral meningitis. Karlovic forgot his name and woke up lying in a hospital. He came back to play tennis in July. He beat Vasek Pospisil 6-4, 1-6, 6-3. The man is insane.

Back in 2018, it’s 10-10 in the fifth set. There have been precisely 5 return points won in the last 11 games. Sugita loses the first point of the service game after spraying a forehand. Suddenly, after a few good returns from Karlovic, Sugita is down 30-40. Karlovic’s return on break point sails wide. But he fights back. He brings up another break point, and he manages to hit a decent topspin return from his forehand. He hits another forehand that scrapes the baseline, and then another deep forehand that Sugita cannot return. This time, Karlovic served out the match. For the second year running, Ivo Karlovic has advanced in Australia after a marathon fifth set. This time, he only ends with 53 aces.

Never retire, Dr. Ivo.

(Update: Karlovic lost 9-7 in the fifth to Andreas Seppi last night. Peak!)

Footnotes

  1. see Allen, Ray
  2. Marius Copil, Kenny De Schepper, Opelka, Gerasimov, Ante Pavic, Mats Moraing, Christopher Eubanks, late era Sam Groth

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