Fourteen years ago, a kindly Croatian played his first Grand Slam singles match. It was the first round of Wimbledon. His opponent was the defending champion, Lleyton Hewitt.
Justifiably nervous, the Croatian rapidly dropped the first set, 6-1. The second went to a tiebreaker, which he won 7-5. By then, settled down, he handily took the next two, 6-3, 6-4. He’d struck 18 aces and 41 winners.
All these years later, Ivo Karlovic continues to personify a concept that sends shivers down the spines of players and promoters: dangerous spoiler. The 6’ 11” Karlovic has supreme self-knowledge, keenly aware that his game is based on forms of disruption less prevalent in contemporary tennis but intermittently effective: slice backhands, frequent forays to the net, short rallies from the baseline.
Most of all, of course, Karlovic wins points with his serve. Karlovic has won 92 percent of his service games, the most all-time (the ATP World Tour started tracking this information in 1991). As of June 19, he has also struck a record 12,005 aces, doing so in 617 matches – an average of just under 20 per match. For comparison’s sake, Roger Federer is third all-time with 9,963 aces in 1,288 matches – less than eight per match. Just behind Federer is Andy Roddick – 9,068 in 776 matches (just over 11 per match).
At the age of 38, Karlovic has proven remarkably sturdy, never more than in the spring of 2013 when he was hospitalized with meningitis. Since then, he has won four ATP World Tour singles titles.
All signs would point to Karlovic persistently faring well at Wimbledon. Though he’s won more matches there than at any major, Karlovic’s record at the All England Club is only 15-12. Last year he lost in the second round. Only once has he reached the quarters, back in 2009.
Certainly he would have fared better at Wimbledon prior to 2002. That was the year the surface was slowed down, vividly impeding the progress of slashing servers and net-rushers. As it now stands, Karlovic at Wimbledon has often been undone by further changes that have tilted the scales in favor of returners, perhaps most of all with string and racquet technology. And yet, surely, any opponent who draws Karlovic will know he will be in for a distinct brand of anguish that will be far more mental than physical.