Ivo Karlovic: More Than Just A Serve
Ivo Karlovic first learned he could cut it with the ATP's big guns at Wimbledon in 2003. Since then the Croatian has tormented the likes of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic to become one of the most feared and greatly improved players on the circuit.
The 'Giant from Salata', the tallest player on the ATP circuit at 6'10" (208 cm), was never heralded as a player of great potential in Croatia. But today — through hard work and dedication — the Zagreb native stands on the brink of the Top 10 having emerged from the long shadows of Mario Ancic, Goran Ivanisevic and Ivan Ljubicic.
"I made my career almost out of nothing," said Karlovic. "Nobody in the Top 100 has had such a difficult path. Some people wanted to help me. But for years I was traveling alone. It was anything but easy."
The goal of becoming a tennis player formed at the age of 13, when a basketball coach put him in a team with children five years older than him. His career path changed forever, Karlovic never backed away from the biggest challenge of his life.
"The 2003 season was definitely the toughest of my career," said Karlovic. "I just lost in the first round of a small tournament at Melun in France and began to wonder: Is it worth it? That was the only thing going through my mind. I really questioned whether I could make it, whether it was worth travelling to even the smallest of events.
"Around this time, I had to play league tennis in Germany, Austria and France. It went on for months, trying to get money to survive, while other aspiring professionals played on the tour."
Ivo Karlovic: Six Things About Being 6' 10"
Sometimes the money dried up for Karlovic, and at one ITF Futures event in France he remembered, "I was waiting for some money from a sponsor that was to come via Western Union. But it never came. Perhaps the experience acted as a good omen, because I ended up winning the tournament.
"There are more stories like this, but that one sticks out. Of course that time has passed now, but one day if I write a book I will deal with all the bizarre things that happened to me."
Worrying about where his next pay check would come from became a thing of the past during the 2003 grass-court season. Having qualified for The Championships at Wimbledon, Karlovic drew the top seed and defending champion Lleyton Hewitt in the first round. The press scrambled for information on the World No. 203. In the space of a few days nobody would ask: 'Who is Ivo Karlovic?'
Four hours into Wimbledon 2003, Hewitt became the first defending men's singles champion to lose in the first round since 1967 when Karlovic recorded a 1-6, 7-6(5), 6-3, 6-4 victory. "From that day my career took off, my confidence soared and I never ever thought again about quitting the sport," recalled Karlovic.
"I have never been jealous about other players who have money and sponsors. It would have been nice to have had that support starting out, but I did it my way: the hard way. Even today, I would never have changed anything in my career. Everything that has happened, happened for a reason."
With his confidence at an all-time high, Karlovic went on to capture two ATP Challenger circuit titles and qualified for the US Open, where he reached the third round (l. to Schalken). He finished the year inside the Top 100 at No. 73 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings and his journey had begun to his current career-high of No. 14 (August 18, 2008).
"At the beginning I never thought I could make it so far," he said. "I suffered a left knee injury in June 2006 and that put me back. I had to rest for five months, so I thought it might be the end, but I never gave up.
"I always dreamed of a good career, but I never knew how hard it was to get to the top: to win consistently and make a name for yourself. To break into the Top 10, which is my next goal, would be something extra special."
With a strong resolve and a supportive wife, in Alsi, whom he married on March 29, 2005, Karlovic has also worked hard to overcome his well-documented problem in communicating.
"Everybody knows my problem communicating. So the most difficult thing for me is to talk in front of 10,000 spectators when I play in a final or win the whole thing. For me it would be easier to play three days in a row than to talk. I tried to solve the problem, but it always comes back."
Over the past two years, Karlovic has been asked to make four speeches after capturing four ATP titles. Courtesy of one of the biggest serves on the ATP circuit he has become a player to avoid. Some critics believe Karlovic is still only a serve, but no player can become a consistent Top 20 player without a solid game.
"If it's only the serve, I must be a genius, a Superman," smiled Karlovic. "Can you imagine what would have become of me if somebody, when I was a kid, taught me how to hit a backhand?
"For my height I think I am a very good mover and have a good forehand, but when I think back to my childhood in Salata, I recollect that I had no place to practise and nobody to practise with. I would therefore wait until the courts had cleared and begin practising my serve again and again. The ritual would sometimes go on long into the night."
Only Karlovic and members of his family – his father, Vlado, is a meteorologist, mother Gordana and older sister Anna – had ever predicted a future in the tennis elite. "My parents were always giving me support. Even though they didn't travel with me because there wasn't the money to do so. They believed in me no matter what. I had unbelievable support."
Any ambition of becoming a basketball player was quickly extinguished when "aged 13, the coach put me in a team of children five years older than me. After that my soul focus was tennis.
"My dad played tennis as an amateur player, but just for the fun, and I started playing with him. First, I hit the ball against the wall, then switched to the court. Given the circumstances at that time [the Croatian War of Independence from 1991-1995], I think I had a decent childhood. Even today, I still have a good relationship with a lot of my friends from school.
"Most of the time, I practised at my local club called Medvescak and grew to admire Mladen Toncic, a coach who now works with juniors at the Croatian Tennis Association. I kept improving and as a junior played alongside Ljubicic in winning the under-16 European Indoor Championships for Croatia."
His early idols were Ivanisevic, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, so when he came close to Ivanisevic's all-time record of aces in a season last year Karlovic was delighted. He hit 1,318 aces, which was the closest anyone had come to his compatriot's record of 1,473 aces in 1996.
"In those days the balls and courts were faster," Karlovic believes. "It's hard and difficult to catch Goran's record and I would have to play much more finals. Right now, I have caught him on average aces per match.
"People think it's because of the height [that I hit a lot of aces], but that is not the key. You have to be strong, maintain your concentration and hit a high percentage of first serves. And that's not easy.
"I admire Andy Roddick, who hits his serves like bombs. They are not easy to return and you always have to be ready for his forehand. On the other hand, David Nalbandian is toughest to play against."
Among Karlovic's other toughest opponents is Roger Federer, whom the Croatian beat for the first time in seven matches at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters in Cincinnati in August. The 7-6(6), 4-6, 7-6(5) win was a dream come true, but he still remembers the day he let Rafael Nadal off the hook at Queen's Club in London this year.
"I hope the day will come," said Karlovic of the 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 7-6(4) defeat in June. "For now, I will always remember July 31, the day I beat Roger Federer, a great player who was No. 1 in the world at the time."
Karlovic also recorded a first career win over No. 3-ranked Novak Djokovic at the Mutua Madrileńa Masters Madrid last month, which brought further media attention. "[It] is something every player has to get used to," said Karlovic. "It was strange at the beginning, but now it's completely normal for me.
"My tennis success has [also] enabled me to get some off-court opportunities that normally I couldn't get. For example, I always liked music."
Six months ago, Karlovic and a friend from cro.records approached Croatian rapper Baby Dooks to record a song. A film spot is also in the pipeline. "The song was really just for the fun and I really enjoyed doing that," explained Karlovic. "It was like a dream of mine had come true. It was a pleasure.
"So with my success in tennis, it has helped to open doors for me which otherwise would not be easy."
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Ivo Karlovic: Six Things About Being 6' 10"