Ivo Karlovic - the Croatian Giant
Trying to Catch a Break
by Jeffrey Lesser
Six-foot-ten Ivo Karlovic is the tallest man ever to be ranked among the top hundred tennis professionals. Equipped with a serve Andy Roddick calls “the biggest weapon in tennis,” Ivo should without a doubt have a big leg up on the rest of the men’s field. However, the Croat giant has reached a career-high ranking of only 51 and has since nestled into a ranking of around 80 (82 as of August 8, 2005). While his Croatian compatriots, Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic, have flourished and come into their own as tennis players, 26-year-old Karlovic has failed to do so. As the 2005 hard court season progresses, Ivo will have to reverse his mindset and habits in order to turn around his game, and consequently, his ranking.
While playing at the Legg Mason Classic in Washington, D.C. last week, Ivo was very impressive in defeating hard-servers Kenneth Carlsen, Max Mirnyi, and Greg Rusedski (both Mirnyi and Rusedski were seeded in the tournament). Reaching the quarterfinals of a non-grass court event for the first time in his life was an enormous achievement for Karlovic, who was playing extremely well and was considered a legitimate threat to defeat top seeded Andy Roddick. The first set of the match went wonderfully for Ivo, who beat the American in a thrilling tiebreak that ended 9-7 in favor of the man from Zagreb. In the second set the two stayed on serve until 5-5, when Roddick broke Karlovic and served out the set successfully. The third and decisive set was 4-4 and at 15-15 on Ivo’s serve. Ivo responded to the pressure-filled situation with two double faults and lost the game, allowing Roddick to serve out the set and the match. Just like that, Ivo Karlovic blew his chance to not only reach the semifinals of the Legg Mason Classic, but also to defeat a top ten player not named Lleyton Hewitt for the first time in his life.
“With (Ivo’s) serve, I am surprised he doesn’t win more,” remarked Cliff Drysdale, who along with Roddick’s former coach Brad Gilbert, commentated the Karlovic-Roddick showdown. Drysdale, unfortunately, has no reason to be surprised. The reason Ivo does not win more often is because of his dreadful return game. As Gilbert noted, Ivo has the worst break percentage of any player in the ATP top 100. That is, he breaks his opponents’ serve at the worst frequency out of any of the top hundred professionals (just six percent of the time, to be exact).
In order to win a set, Ivo probably has to force a tiebreak. To do that, with his six percent break rate, he has to hold his own serve every time. That transforms his serve, “the biggest weapon in tennis,” into a shot that only keeps him in the match.
When he enters tiebreaks, Karlovic, despite owning a better serve than his opponent, wins only fifty percent of the time. This can be attributed to his penchant for committing costly errors. Karlovic is not an extremely steady player, and if his opponent can return his serve back to the other side of the court, there is a decent probability that Ivo will miss the put-away or lose the point one way or the other. Considering Ivo has great difficulty winning a point on his opponent’s serve, one Karlovic mistake can give his opponent the set in tiebreak.
The only things that stand between Ivo Karlovic and tremendous success is his erraticism and his return game. His inclination to make an error can be easily diminished and made insignificant by his tremendous serve. Simply raising the rate at which he earns a break of serve from six to twelve will increase the number of matches he wins by a remarkable amount. If he can continue holding serve the way he has in the past, and his return game slightly improves, Karlovic will become not only a dangerous player, but perhaps a truly great one.
“He needs to improve his return game just a little, and then he can be a top 25 player,” stated Gilbert during Ivo’s duel with Roddick. To go from 82nd in the world to 25th, all Ivo needs to do is learn to return serve. It sounds easy enough, but only time will tell.
Stay tuned for the rest of the summer to the Ivo Show, which culminates at the 2005 US Open. In Flushing Meadows, he will certainly be a threat to win a round or two, but if he can break serve there, who knows? Maybe six-foot-ten Ivo Karlovic can be the tallest man to win the US Open.
JEFFREY LESSER lives in West Orange, New Jersey, where he is a 16-year-old high school senior. A "straight A" student, Jeffrey is the editorials editor of his school newspaper, the Pioneer, and frequently contributes editorials, mainly about politics. Jeff is the captain of the boys' tennis team at West Orange High School. He hopes to attend Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he wants to major in sports medicine and become a licensed physician. His mother said that Jeff is such a big fan of Croatian tennis, he might as well just move to Croatia altogether.