UTennis: Man vs. Cannon

Friday, September 25, 2009 /by

It’s been a little light, news-wise, since the U.S. Open ended, which is not necessarily a bad thing if you’re me. I’ve had time to do some writing and editing for our magazines, TENNIS and Smash. Still, along with you, I have had two moments to savor: The return of Justine Henin and the continued, uncanny ability of Davis Cup to inspire epic performances.

Last weekend, in the semifinal between the Czech Republic and Croatia, we were given one of the more memorable/remarkable/downright bizarre matches in the sport’s history. Radek Stepanek beat Ivo Karlovic 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 7-6 (6), 6-7 (2), 16-14. The contest lasted 5 hours and 59 minutes, and its 82 games were the second-most since the tiebreaker was instituted. The first four sets went to tiebreakers, three of which were won by just two points; the fourth set, which Karlovic won 7-2 in a breaker, must have felt like a blowout.

All of which pales a little compared to what Karlovic did in defeat. His 78 aces—on clay—would seem likely to join the ranks of other unbreakable sports records, like Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak, Johnny van der Meer’s consecutive no-hitters, Steffi Graf’s Golden Slam, Roger Federer’s 22 straight Grand Slam semifinals. And has any record, other than perhaps Bob Beamon’s long jump at the 1968 Olympics, ever been improved so dramatically in one day? Karlovic, naturally, held the previous mark for most aces, with 55. That briefly seemed in danger during this year's Wimbledon final when Federer reached the 50 mark in the fifth set. But 78? The sport might have to go to best-four-out-of-seven sets before that's challenged.

Naturally, someone—Magnificat83, to be exact—has posted a video on YouTube of all 78 of Karlovic’s aces. (Plus, at the end, the sad result of them, Stepanek’s service winner at match point.) Even then, the clip lasts eight minutes! Is watching a very tall man hit aces worth eight minutes of your life? Sure it is.

—If I had to point to one specific and crucial advantage that Karlovic gets from being 6-foot-10, it’s that he can hit flat serves wide, without taking any pace off or adding any spin, and send them blitzing past his opponent. Sometimes I try to imagine doing that when I’m serving. The idea seems absurd.

—Dr. Ace looks like an NBA player throwing a ball down at a 6-foot hoop. When he’s in rhythm, the service box must appear to be an ocean to him.

—Credit Stepanek for never blinking or showing any frustration whatsoever during this blizzard of aces. You can’t survive against Karlovic without that mindset.

—78 aces is more than three sets' worth of points

—By about the five-minute mark, I start to get tired watching Karlovic. I wonder whether hitting this many aces wears out the server while keeping the returner fresh? Stepanek played three sets of tennis without having to exert any energy at all.

—Consider that this mark was achieved in a year when Roger Federer broke the men’s Grand Slam singles record, and a year after what many people, including myself, believe was the greatest match ever played. I think about a line Gordon Forbes, a player from the amateur circuit of the 1950s, wrote when he came to watch the Masters Cup sometime during the 1990s. He said that the level of play had become so good it seemed like everyone was aiming for perfection with every shot. Needless to say, this was a totally different attitude toward the game than anyone had before.

Having caught a few classic Slam finals from the ’70s and ’80s recently on the Tennis Channel, I can see what Forbes meant. Those matches were excellent in their way, but a few points are enough to make you appreciate just how proficient today’s players are. On one level, 78 aces, in a losing effort, is an anomalous achievement by an abnormal guy. But at another level it’s a stunning benchmark of skill, accuracy, and consistency on the serve.

—What’s just as remarkable is that Karlovic lost this match. In baseball, a lot is made of the fact that the distance from home plate to first base, 90 feet, has never had to be lengthened, even as players have gotten faster. On an average ground ball, a clean throw from the shortstop still gets the runner by half a step. The same can be said for the serve in tennis. It’s been feared for decades that it would overtake the rest of the sport, but the guys who have relied almost entirely on their serves to get them through—Ivanisevic, Roddick, etc.—still come up just short when pitted against guys with all-around games. There have been calls to go to one serve instead of two, but it’s never been necessary. Stepanek still absorbed three sets worth of aces and won. The sad thing for Karlovic is that tennis is better off with him as a loser. At times, when I see how glum he can look on a court, I think he knows this.

—When Stepanek finally does win, he celebrates with deep emotion; he’s too exhausted to do the worm. Yes, it would be nice if guys like Roger Federer played Davis Cup, but I like the fact that it gives second-tier players, the Stepaneks and Karlovics and Verdascos and Lopezes of the world, a chance to have a moment to rejoice as if they’ve just won their sixth Wimbledon or their first French Open. It’s an opportunity for glory for these hard-working, week-to-week pros, and an opportunity for fans to see them at their most emotional. With Davis Cup, the riches get spread around.

—There’s one accidentally poignant comment below this clip: “Tennis also needs freaks like that.” Karlovic is an aberration as a tennis player, but his “freakishness” has rarely come across so painfully as it does here, when he walks off the court a loser after six hours and 78 aces. He takes it as impassively and stoically as always. It's as if he realizes that he's a guy not destined for glory, even in DC. Instead, he's destined to be just good enough to put himself permanently in the record books even while suffering the most heartbreaking loss of his career. But that’s Davis Cup, and that’s tennis. 

Have a good weekend.

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