Catching Bullets

by: Peter Bodo | June 28, 2012

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201206281149425616716-p2@stats_comWIMBLEDON—When you play 6'10" Ivo Karlovic on a grass court, you know one thing for sure: Whatever happens will be over quickly. Beyond that, finding yourself across the net from Karlovic leaves you with a mission akin to. . . trying to catch rubber bullets fired at you from 78 feet away? Trying to place a tin cup in a meadow so a bolt of lightning will hit it? Catching a fly with an oven mitt?

As John McEnroe said during the broadcast of today's match between fourth-seeded Andy Murray and Karlovic, "It's very hard to feel comfortable playing Ivo Karlovic." But the really weird thing is that the discomfort isn't caused, as is usually the case, by how much you have to do. It's created by what you don't do, which is play tennis in any conventional sense of the word. Tough as it is to return that long drink of water's serve, going two or three or five sets with him is more like waiting for a bus. Come to think of it, I get a little edgy waiting for a bus, so maybe that's just what McEnroe meant.

Murray survived his sweat-free match with Karlovic today, 7-5, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (4). Afterward, he described the challenge of playing a game in which the overwhelming issue isn't winning points when the other guy is serving, it's getting points started. "I mean, it's sort of different," he said. "I guess it was a three?hour match. It was fairly hot out there. When you play someone like Rafa there's a lot of long points, a lot of running in the rallies. Today, you have to be actually very explosive often, like on the return. It's like you need to be ready the whole match."

Wait. It gets worse.

You'd think that having to break a serve that not only arrives routinely at 130 M.P.H., but from a different and often more acute angle (owing to Karlovic's height and enormous reach) than expected, is tough enough. But mentally breaking out the champagne is premature even on those occasions when you do guess right and make the return, Karlovic throws in a double-fault, and a pigeon flies by and grabs a ball he just volleyed and drops it behind the baseline. 

According to Murray, you can't really take your hold games for granted, despite Karlovic's well-documented inability to engage in a rally. "Most times when I played against him, one game on the return during each set he strings a few shots together and makes it tough.  He comes in (to volley), you know, a little bit, or he'll connect with a few forehand returns. It's tough. You just need to try to concentrate really hard the whole match and not get too frustrated—or too pumped—because it can change very quickly."

Once again, it's not about what happens because not much ever does.

Perhaps you can see why that bald spot Murray is developing seemed to grow bigger and bigger right before our eyes in this match. Consider this: During one lull when both men were holding with impunity (Karlovic because that's what he does; Murray because the the major sub-text of this match was the quality of his serve—as attested by the fact that his best serve, at 134 M.P.H., was just one measly mile per hour slower than Karlovic's finest) I decided to time how long the ball was in play during a Karlovic service game.

The game in question featured two volley winners, an ace and a service winner. The ball was in play seven and 96/100ths seconds, which might be wildly exaggerated because it takes more time to push the button on my digital watch at the end of a point than at the beginning. Although it's fun to go off on the role Karlovic's serve plays in a match, that service-speed stat I just cited, and the fact that Karlovic hit "just" 17 aces to a healthy 11 by Murray, tends to support the idea that the real "Karlovic problem" for his rivals isn't that he serves so many aces or first serve winners, but that he hits so many big balls on second serves, and remains determined not to let any point last any longer than it takes for him to finish it one way or another. 

"One way or another" means that Karlovic's unforced error count is often more eye-catching that his "first serve points won" statistic, and that's saying something. Today, Ivo had 42 unforced errors, five times more than Murray's eight. 

201206280948352956389-p2@stats_comMurray pointed out that Karlovic routinely serves second balls up high in the 120s, and elaborated on why it's so nerve-wracking to play him. "It's also a different match because he's coming in behind it (the serve) as well; whereas (John) Isner stays back. So you can get away with maybe just blocking the return in and getting yourself in the rally against Isner. Against him (Karlovic), you need to look to do something with the return, because if it's just up here, he volleys well."

The critical moment of the match was the fourth-set tiebreaker, and turned partly on a controversial foot-fault call that would later spur Karlovic to denounce the All England Club and suggest that the officials had conspired to make sure that Murray, "an English," would win. That call was one in a series that Karlovic estimated as about 11 foot-fault calls (that number sounded a little high, but I didn't keep track), going way back to the second set. Whatever the case, after that foot fault, Murray drilled Karlovic's second serve right back at his feet to present him with an unplayable volley, which gave Murray a mini-break and 3-2 lead.

Karlovic got the mini-break right back via, irony of ironies, one of the longest rallies of the match. It must have gone a whopping six, seven touches! Two holds followed. Then Karlovic, still distressed about the foot faults, hit a double fault. Murray had the match on his racquet, 5-4. He won both points thanks to Karlovic errors.

I have no opinion on those foot faults but can attest to Karlovic's distress. He's both controversy and attention averse, yet he crawled way out on a limb to make his accusations, including the familiar one—that the foot faults were never called on meaningless points, just big ones. He claimed that at one point he altered his service stance to avoid being called again. It didn't help. "I stand a little bit back so they cannot call. They still did it, called.  So it was outrageous, outrageous. It's Wimbledon, Centre Court, and they do this. I mean, this is BS. . . I feel cheated. On a Grand Slam, Centre Court, I don't know what to say."

The allegations were stunning, and they added an unpleasant coda to a match that Karlovic lost through no foot-fault of his own, but more likely because of the precision and patience of Andy Murray.

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