When Ivo Karlovic, always the tallest and now the oldest player left in the tournament, launches one of his service bombs from its maximum height on Centre Court at Wimbledon on Monday afternoon, with his feet off the ground and his strong right arm stretched to the skies, the ball will start its 135mph journey towards Andy Murray roughly at the eye level of the chair umpire.
So, how does the 6ft 3in Murray, who has survived the tennis equivalent of facing Joel Garner at the Waca five times and won every encounter, prepare for such an ordeal? “Normally,” he says, “I get the coach, or whoever I am hitting with, to stand just behind the service line and basically try to ace me for 10 to 15 minutes. I don’t want to know where they are going to serve. That’s what I have done before when I played the big servers.”
None is bigger than Karlovic, who wears size 16 shoes and, according to his own estimate, stands 6ft 11in and weighs around 16 stones. On Saturday, the 36-year-old Croatian became the first player in the history of the game to serve 40 or more aces three matches in a row when he put 41 of them past a bewildered Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to go with the 53 that dazzled Alexandr Dolgopolov last Wednesday and the 42 that the Swedish qualifier Elias Ymer had to endure in the first round.
That is 136 aces in three matches. Already this year he has hit 619 aces in 29 matches, 163 of them in seven outings on grass from Halle to Queen’s to Wimbledon. In 45 matches this season, Murray has hit 282 aces, with 36 from six on grass – so the disparity in penetration with ball in hand is stark enough.
Every time he goes to the service line, Karlovic has high expectations: in his 512 matches on the Tour, he has won his first serve 22,662 times, and he needs just 387 more aces for a career total of 10,000. Another 184 after that mark will take him beyond the all-time record held by Goran Ivanisevic.
Few hit the ball faster than Karlovic. Only Sam Groth (147mph), Milos Raonic (140mph), John Isner (140mph) and Kevin Anderson (138mph) have bettered his and Grigor Dimitrov’s 137mph efforts at these championships. Only Anderson and Karlovic of this sextet have reached the second week, and it is Murray’s task in the fourth round to see if he can beat the Croatian for the sixth time in a row.
Seven of their 14 sets have gone to tie-breaks, Murray prevailing four times – and therein lies the key to his success. While Karlovic is tough to break, he finds it difficult to reply in kind against players with a lot of tennis smarts like Murray because the very physical advantage that helps him also hinders him. He is no slithering elf around the court.
If there is a weakness in the Karlovic serve, it may be in the launching of those extraordinary rockets. When they played here in 2012, Karlovic was foot-faulted 11 times on his way to losing in the second round and was furious. He said afterwards: “It was outrageous, outrageous. It’s Wimbledon, Centre Court, and they do this. The whole credibility of this tournament went down for me.”
Murray responded at the time : “That’s very tough, to question the integrity of Wimbledon.”
In The Rules Of Tennis, Rule 8 says “… the server shall throughout the delivery of the service: not change his position by walking or running … and not touch, with either foot, any area other than that behind the baseline within the imaginary extensions of the centre mark and sidelines.”
The row was ludicrously described as “a cheat storm”, and soon blew over.
Murray said none of this would prey on his mind in their sixth meeting when he spoke after beating Andreas Seppi in four sets of considerable drama on Saturday evening to reach the second week for the ninth time in 10 visits. “Well it wasn’t a problem for me,” he said after his massage and ice bath, “more for him because, when he gets foot faults, he loses the first serve. But it was strange, because he and very few of the players foot fault on a regular basis.”
Karlovic is no lumbering automaton and has a loyal and amused following on Twitter, where he dispenses eccentric views on a regular basis. There will be no acrimony.
At 36 years and 128 days, he is the oldest player to reach the fourth round since Niki Pilic in 1976. To Karlovic, all of these numbers matter little.It does not concern him that he is the senior citizen at the oldest tournament in tennis.Murray will not take him lightly. In his first match at Wimbledon 12 years ago, Karlovic stunned everyone when he beat the defending champion Lleyton Hewitt.“He beat [Tomas] Berdych in Halle, he beat Tsonga here,” Murray pointed out. “He’s dangerous.” And he is relaxed.
Late on Saturday night before arranging a Sunday morning hit with Juan Ignacio Chela, Karlovic said, “I like what I do. I’m having fun. I don’t know how it’s gonna be [against Murray]. I have chance, for sure. If I’m able to do this at my age, it is unbelievable. I don’t know for how much longer I can do this, but right now I don’t have an issue with injuries. I am healthy, motivated. So I will go on.”
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