UNIONDALE, N.Y.—Sitting in the lobby of the Long Island Marriott—situated just a short walk away from the famed Nassau Coliseum, where the New York Open is underway—Ivo Karlovic is not noticed by most people passing by. Karlovic likes it that way. He is soft-spoken, unassuming and self-effacing. The 6’11” Croatian is not accustomed to patting himself on the back.
But who could blame him if he did? Karlovic will turn 40 on February 28, and he has spent 15 of the previous 16 seasons entrenched among the Top 100 in the ATP rankings, missing the cut by one spot on the year-end 2018 list. Karlovic currently stands at No. 81, and will be only the fourth player 40 or over to reside in the Top 100 since the official computer rankings began in 1973. (Only Ken Rosewall, Jimmy Connors and Denmark’s zany left-hander Torben Ulrich have realized that feat.)
Karlovic has much to celebrate about his career as he moves toward a milestone birthday. The tape recorder is running. He is ready to talk. I ask him the unavoidable first question of the interview: would he have ever envisioned in his twenties that he would still be up there in the Top 100 at 40?
He responds, “No. I mean when I was 23, 24, or 25, it was unheard of to have that long of a career. Only a couple of guys had done it before. I was just hoping to keep playing to around 30, but to be here at 39 and about to turn 40 is a good feeling.”
Asked about the chief reason for his longevity as a top-flight player, Karlovic replies, “No. 1, I started a little bit late. It was not until I was 24 that I started [getting really good]. Others were breaking through at 18 or 19. No. 2 is the physical preparation I have done that has helped me so much. I have not changed much in my training.”
Why change a winning formula? Most of us got our first look at this towering individual from Croatia at Wimbledon in the summer of 2003, when he toppled the defending champion Lleyton Hewitt in the first round.
What stands out to Karlovic as he reflects on that triumph?
“I remember walking out on that court and I was looking around [distracted] and it seemed like an hour-and-a-half," he answers. "But then I to focused on the match. But that was difficult because it was not just the match that I was feeling, but the ambiance and the crowd. It was completely new to me. It was definitely one of the best memories in my career. It was a breakthrough. After that I realized I am able to play with the best. I felt I belonged."
Another landmark moment for Karlovic was his final set tie-break victory over Roger Federer in the quarterfinals of the Masters 1000 tournament at Cincinnati in August of 2008, a win that took him to his career-best ranking of No. 14. It is the only time in 14 career meetings that the Croatian has upended the Swiss, although they have had many hard-fought battles.
As Karlovic recollects, “I was really happy. In that match with Federer I was winning a lot of points on my second serve. He was struggling with returning them. That was the difference.”
Reminded that he is one of the few players today with a winning record against Novak Djokovic—at 2-1—Karlovic smiles and says, “It is really four matches we have played because I had another win over Novak in the qualifying for Madrid in 2005.”
But by far his most significant win over Djokovic was his quarterfinal victory in Doha on hard courts at the start of 2015. That was one of the Serbian’s finest years. He won 11 tournaments, 82 of 88 matches and three of the four majors. But Karlovic came from behind to defeat Djokovic in Doha, serving 21 aces and not losing his serve or even facing a break point in three sets.
“I remember on the day it was really windy. I was able to serve unbelievable in the wind and he was struggling also from the baseline. He did not like my sliced backhand, so in the end he was actually going to my forehand. I was playing really well that day. This could be my best win, but when I beat Roger in Cincinnati that was my first over a No. 1 ranked player. So maybe that one is a little higher in my best victories.”
Although Karlovic has pushed Rafael Nadal into final set tiebreakers in three of their five career meetings, he has never beaten the great left-hander. Is the Spaniard tougher mentally than anyone Karlovic has competed against?
“That is difficult to say,” he asserts, “because when I am serving well there is nothing they can really do, either the top guys or someone ranked 80 or 90. If I hit an ace there is not much of a difference.”
Which man does Karlovic believe is the best player he has ever seen or played? He makes a distinction.
“For me, personally from playing against them, either Rafa or Roger is the best. Novak’s game suits me more. But if I look overall at their achievements and level of play at their best, it is Novak who is the best.”
The serve, of course, has always set Karlovic apart, all through his career. He has arguably the best serve in the game and irrefutably one of the biggest. Coming into 2019, the big man had served no fewer than 12,936 career aces, the most since records were first kept in 1991. Now he has climbed over 13,000. Has he grown weary of hearing his aces tossed into every conversation?
“No, no”, he laughs. “I like it. If anybody could hit an ace, they would do it. That is how I look at it. I like aces.”
Karlovic is frequently measured in the high 130 MPHs and low 140s on the speed gun at tournaments, but unlike other prodigious servers he pays no attention to those numbers.
“The speed gun is not as accurate if you are taller like me," he says. "It only catches it from an angle, and I hit over it, so my ball has to come down a little bit. That’s why I don’t think it is accurate. My serve might be faster than what the speed gun shows. I don’t even look at it.”
Opponents always bemoan facing the Karlovic serve. Asked to name the best server he has ever faced, Karlovic selects the long retired Australian left-hander Wayne Arthurs.
“I just could not return his serve. I had no idea where he was going to hit it, which speed, what direction. Andy Roddick would always get 80 percent of his first serves in. Federer serve is great but it is what he does next with his strokes after the return comes back that is so good.”
How much of an advantage is it for Karlovic or the 6’10” John Isner to be serving from that extraordinary height when compared to the 6’5” Milos Raonic or the 6’1” Federer?
Karlovic responds, “It helps with angles for sure. But after the serve is in play and the point continues, it is a bit of a disadvantage for me to be so tall in terms of my legs and my movement. I would say Raonic may be the ideal height. But maybe he can’t serve as many aces as me.”
Karlovic made that last comment jovially, but he turns serious when I mention that it must be disconcerting to play so many matches with the crowd invariably cheering on his opponents. Only someone with a thick skin could handle that as graciously as he does.
He concedes, “Even if my opponent is acting bad or arrogant, because of my height everybody who plays me looks like an underdog. Of course the crowds will cheer for them, even though these players are sometimes angry and not always acting nice. I don’t really let it bother me, even if it can be a little annoying.”
When Karlovic was diagnosed with a virus called encephalitis in 2013, that was more than a minor annoyance; it could potentially have ended his career.
As he recalls, “It was scary. My arm was numb. It was thought that it might be a stroke. But then they realized what it was. I was lucky it was viral and not bacterial. They said it could have come from a spider bite or something like that.”
These days, however, Karlovic is remarkably fit for being on the verge of 40.
He says, “I think I am the fittest now that I have ever been. In the last two years I have had almost no injuries, so I worked very hard. I don’t see any decline in my movement. Maybe it is a little better right now.”
Perhaps the best tennis Karlovic has ever played on a sustained basis was in 2016, when he finished the year at No. 20. At 37, he became the oldest player to garner a Top 20 spot since the diminutive 43-year-old Rosewall in 1978.
Karlovic speaks humbly about that achievement.
“I did not see Rosewall play but I have watched him on YouTube," he says. "It is a great honor to be in the same category as him, even if it is a category about old age.”
And yet, Karlovic is not sitting around reflecting on his history, or resting on his laurels. He is in pursuit of more success. Last year, right after the US Open, his ranking had slipped to No. 138. He had to bring that ranking up considerably to set himself up for 2019, and he did just that, playing five Challenger events, winning one, reaching another final, going to the quarters of two more. He moved up to No. 101 at the end of the season.
“I didn’t really care that much about finishing at No. 101 and not being Top 100,” he says. “I had to go play those Challengers to get my ranking back up. I wanted to get straight into the Australian Open, and I was able to do that. If I had not, I don’t know if I would still be playing. The whole last year I was not having the same motivation, but playing those Challengers helped me to get my motivation back.”
Unfortunately for Karlovic, he was unable to exploit a 7-5 lead in the fifth set, super tiebreaker in Australia against Kei Nishikori in the second round, losing five points in a row to the Japanese stylist. His career record in tie-breaks is surprisingly only around .500, but he is philosophical about hard losses like the one to Nishikori and another final set tiebreaker defeat in January against Kevin Anderson in the final at Pune, India.
“Always when you lose like that,” he says, “it is frustrating. But in the end, that is just how how it is. There are not a lot of differences between each of us as players. Close matches can go either way. Two points either way can decide a match like that. You have to do your best.”
No matter what happens from here on in, Karlovic can be exceedingly proud of his impact on the sport.
“For anybody who is from Croatia like me, or someone from other another country that doesn’t have a lot of money, it is a struggle," he says. "I did not have help from anybody. I had to do everything on my own. In some countries everything is organized from an early age with money, traveling and coaches. I didn’t have that, so to be able to succeed in tennis for so long makes me very proud.”
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