Ivo the Unbreakable

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PARIS—It takes a lot to make Grigor Dimitrov, the muscular, 23-year-old heartthrob who owns a backhand as powerful and shiny as a red Ferrari, look like a mere schoolboy in short pants. But then there’s a lot of 6’11” Ivo Karlovic—especially if you factor in the experience this 35-year-old has accumulated while raining down fire on all comers through over a decade-and-a-half on the pro tour.

Today Karlovic demonstrated, once again, why he’s at the top of the short list of men a seeded player would just as soon not see across the net as he sallies forth in a major event. He upset No. 11 seed Dimitrov, 6-4, 7-5, 7-6 (4), on the court informally known as the “Bullring.” As always, Karlovic’s serve was the main agent of Dimitrov’s doom, but it was by no means the only one.

There are plenty of 6’11” guys walking around on this planet, but none in recent memory have been ranked as high by the ATP as No. 14 (in 2008; Karlovic is currently No. 37), nor overcome as many obstacles—the latest being an alarming case of viral meningitis that forced the introspective Croatian to leave the tour for about three months. He was bent on making a successful comeback, and here he is. Bring your helmet.

“When you’re in the hospital, you realize what you really want to do, and what is important in your life,” Karlovic said after the upset. “Definitely for me one of those things is tennis. When I was healthy again I was really happy on the court, so every day that I am playing it is really a nice feeling.”

One guy’s “nice feeling” usually is an opponent’s personal tragedy, but Dimitrov took this loss more like a man than a boy. “Of course, it's a big disappointment for me. I liked my chances here. Been playing good tennis on the clay courts, so I don't want to be too disappointed, because it’s, you know. . .it is what it is. It happened. He came from playing a final last week (Dusseldorf) and really confident. He played really good tennis, serving well, and actually all around the court his shots were really good.”

At first glance, you could have mistaken Dimitrov for a youth slacking around at a Black Sea resort. Maybe that had something to do with his black socks and bright yellow kicks, tan shorts, and a mustard-colored shirt busy with horizontal stripes.

Karlovic, in stark contrast, looked formidable in a plain, monochromatic outfit consisting of black shorts and white everything else. It was appropriate, in that this long drink of water plays a very black-and-white game.

But it’s a mistake to take Karlovic for a one-trick pony. Sure, his firepower can seem overwhelming, but it was the rest of his game that carried this day for him.

“Today he was all over the court—just hitting his shots, you know, penetrating every volley, low slice, serving really good,” Dimitrov said in describing the problems he faced against a man who’s serve is pretty much unbreakable. “He always serves good (Dimitrov had but one break point in the match, and Karlovic dismissed it). Whatever I was trying to do was just not going my way. I mean, at the end of the day I don't want to get myself too down for that. It's just a loss.”

One aspect of this match that will jump out in any analysis is that it featured just one tiebreaker. The first commandment when you’re playing a Karlovic or John Isner is to hold serve; the unbreakables almost surely will, and clearly God didn’t want these fellas to win everything in sight or else he would have given them return games, too.

Dimitrov played two poor return games, one in each set. He not only dug himself a hole a blue-tick hound might admire, he created that much more pressure on himself to do the impossible—break that big Karlovic serve just to have a chance.

Dimitrov owned up to his mistakes and regretted them: “I must say they were funny breaks, because it was just. . . a few frames (shanked balls by Dimitrov) and just pretty few mediocre shots.”

Meanwhile, Karlovic was backing up his atomic serve with precise, crisp forehands that consistently found either lines or corners. He also hit backhands that, if they didn’t invade those same areas, often ended up in places where Dimitrov couldn’t do a great deal with them.

All the while, an aging lunatic in a track suit (why are these guys always clutching vinyl travel bags to their chests?) kept trying to whip the crowd into a frenzy, chanting and three-clapping something that sounded like a diminutive of “Grigor.” Only a handful of spectators clapped along, and listlessly at that. But he didn’t stop until he was thrown out of his choice courtside seat by the legitimate ticket holder. So much for the “color” at the fabled Bullring.

The pressure mounted on Dimitrov as the games rolled by in the third set. He was lucky to get graphite on serves that weren’t aces (Karlovic had 22 of them, but more significantly he won 88 percent of his first serve points). Karlovic felt confident enough to serve and volley, and smothered returns left and right. Dimitrov did a better job observing that first commandment in the set, but he ultimately found himself staring down the barrel of a tiebreaker.

Perhaps curiously, Dimitrov had a better tiebreaker record this year than Karlovic (11-7 vs. 15-13), but the way this one spooled out said much about this match. The only mini-break was on the very first point. Karlovic hit a good return off a Dimitrov serve, and held his own in a brief rally that stretched both men. Karlovic replied to a crisp shot that jammed him with a soft backhand slice that seemed to catch Dimitrov off guard. The Bulgarian sprinted forward from the baseline into no-man’s land, but was unable to dig the ball out and flop it back over.

Dimitrov appeared to have a chance to get the mini-break back with Karlovic serving at 4-2. He made a decent return, but the ensuing rally ended when Karlovic hit a terrific cross-court forehand that Dimitrov couldn’t handle. It was the last look either man had at a mini-break point, and Karlovic finally served out the match with an ace.

“Everybody don't like to play against me because I can always hit an ace,” Karlovic admitted afterward. “So I can always get out of every situation—not always, but you know what I mean. There’s no rhythm when they play me, and they are a little scared, for sure.”

But when I remarked that despite the obvious advantage of his height, the tour isn’t awash in giants, Karlovic acknowledged how much competence, if not necessarily genius, must support that serve. Making the most of a serve is one thing; successfully creating enough of a game to go along with it is challenging enough to leave a lot of candidates staring and muttering at their size 18 tennis shoes.

“Its a lot of work, since I was young,” Karlovic said. “It also takes coordination to be successful. Other guys that are also my height, but perhaps not as well coordinated, have trouble.”

It was a good day for Karlovic, and a disappointing one for Dimitrov, who had seemed poised to make his big breakthrough. He’s a colorful guy who’ll make a good Grand Slam champion, but today things were a little more black-and-white.

For French Open previews and thoughts on Novak Djokovic's position in Paris—plus instruction, gear, and GIFs—read this week's edition of Tennis Tuesday.

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