Ivo Karlovic: I Love the '90s!

Rob YorkSenior Writer IJune 30, 2009

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 26:  Ivo Karlovic of Croatia celebrates during the men's singles third round match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France  on Day Five of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 26, 2009 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

There’s something about Ivo Karlovic’s current run through the Wimbledon draw that makes me want to turn on my favorite Soundgarden record and rent my favorite Jeff Goldblum sci-fi summer action flick.

Watching the 6'10" Croat pound ace after ace, suddenly I feel like it’s the ‘90s all over again.

When most tennis fans think fondly of the last decade of the previous century, it’s usually for the Agassi-Sampras duels, or the Agassi-Rafter duels, or sometimes just Agassi. But there was a unique type of player that thrived in those days, especially on grass, that is often not remembered; at least not fondly.

I call them the Pure Power Players (PPP), while some refer to them as the Super Servers. Others fall asleep just thinking about them.

Individually these players could be quite charming; for example, Goran Ivanisevic ranks alongside Ilie Nastase and Mansour Bahrami among the game’s quirkiest players, with a distinct service motion and a knack for unpredictable shot attempts.

Richard Krajicek, on the other hand, was an underrated athlete with perfect technique on the serve, the volleys and the forehand. Mark Philippoussis lived a life of rock-and-roll excess and attacked every ball as if it had insulted the honor of his family.

It’s just that whenever these PPPs met each other on grass—or faced more well-rounded big servers like Pete Sampras and Boris Becker—the matches more resembled trap shooting than actual tennis. Sampras’ 1994 victory over Ivanisevic in the Wimbledon final was notable for featuring not one point with more than four shots.

The decline of the PPP in favor of power baseliners who were more reliant on defense and consistency is something the majority of tennis fans consider a positive development.

The tremendous play of Karlovic at this year’s event is unlikely to change that perception. It’s not just that the big Croat is one-dimensionalthough he makes Philippoussis and Krajicek look positively well-rounded by comparisonbut the man has no visible personality.

His serve, however, has character to spare. Thanks to his 6’10" height he is capable of reaching the 150 mph range while hitting spots and angles others can only imagine. In fact, it's possible that Karlovic is actually the biggest server of all time.

Consider: Near the end of his career at Wimbledon, Sampras’ first serve averaged at about 119 mph and his second came in at about 109. Philippoussis often averaged 124 mph on the first and 111 on the second.

At this year’s Wimbledon, Karlovic’s average first and second serves were 129 and 115 in Round Three, then 130 and 114 in Round Four.

What’s more, Andy Roddickno slouch in the service department himselfsaid that even the Croat’s flat serves take a wicked bounce after landing thanks to the downward angle the towering Karlovic hits at.

“I don’t think you can compare my serve to his,” said Roddick a few years ago, despite holding the record for fastest serve ever at 155 mph.  

And yet the towering Croat has done little damage in majors since shocking Lleyton Hewitt in the first round of Wimbledon in 2003. This year’s Wimbledon is his first ever trip past the fourth round of a major, and his four wins at this year’s event come after four straight years of first-round losses there.

Part of this can be attributed to Wimbledon’s slower surface speed since the ‘90s, and also to the fact that racket technology has empowered baseliners to greater heights of consistency.

In this regard Karlovic is out of step with the times; he has a solid volley, but his movement is poor for a pro and he slaps wildly at his groundies, hoping four of them go in on any one of his opponent’s service game so he can serve out the set.

With a weapon like his, however, it was perhaps inevitable that he’d put together a run at a major. Perhaps it was the wisdom he’s accumulated over the years on tour, or the sense that, at 30, he needs to act now. Whatever it may be, his play in this event should strike fear in the heart of power baseliners everywhere.

After two straight-set wins, he defeated the athletic all-courter Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Round Three and the hard-hitting lefty Fernando Verdasco in the Round of 16, both in four sets.

Tsonga’s average first serve was only four mph faster than Karlovic’s second delivery, and Verdasco’s average first serve was actually two mph slower than the Croat’s second.

Against Tsonga, he hit 46 aces, made 77 percent of his first serves, and won 90 percent of the points when his first delivery went in the box. Against Verdasco, he hit 35 aces and won 93 percent of his first serve points. Neither Tsonga nor Verdasco held so much as a break point in eight sets.

In four matches, Karlovic has not lost serve once.

Now in the quarters, the man who makes Ivanisevic look patient faces the player who makes Sampras look one-dimensional. One could feel pretty good about Karlovic’s chances of a semi or maybe a final were he not lined up against Roger Federer next time out.

It’s not just that Federer has won eight of their nine career meetings; breaking the Swiss’ serve is no easier than it is to break the Croat’s.

While Federer’s serve is not nearly as big as Karlovic’s (he has 59 aces through four matches, less than half of the Croat’s 137) he backs up his service games better than anyone. To win, Karlovic is somehow going to have to break him, or win three of the first four sets in tiebreakers.

Both seem unlikely.

What you can count on in their Wednesday meeting is tiebreakers and short points. So crank up Superunknown, tell your favorite Bill Clinton-intern joke, and get ready for the pure power.