Serve-and-volleying Ivo Karlovic stands test of time

Serve-and-volleying Ivo Karlovic stands test of time
Serve-and-volleying Ivo Karlovic stands test of time Karlovic beat Steve Darcis 7-6, 4-6, 6-3 in the Tata Open Maharashtra semifinal to become the oldest player since 1977 to reach an ATP Tour event final.

Ivo Karlovic remembers a time back in his youth when there were no practice partners he could find on the tennis courts of Zagreb. The war in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s was tearing the Balkan nation apart. Sport, let alone tennis, was the last thing on anybody’s mind – but not the teenager. He’d still go to the courts and practice solo.

“When I was younger, maybe 13, I just liked to hit aces and that became my style,” he says. “I didn’t get a lot of opportunities to hit with other kids on the courts. So I’d just go there and practice serves and that helped me a lot.”

Now in the 19th year of his career, he tops the leaderboard for most aces by any player in the history of the tour – 13024. That’s not a stat that he finds too motivating though. After all, the tall 6-foot-11 Croat is on the verge of something even bigger.

On Friday night, when he took to the centre court of the Balewadi Tennis Stadium in Pune, the 39-year-old out-served and outplayed Belgian Steve Darcis 7-6, 4-6, 6-3 in the semi-final of the Tata Open Maharashtra to become the oldest player since 1977 to book a spot in the final of an ATP Tour event.

“When I was on my way (to Pune), I didn’t expect to get this far,” he says after the match. “I was hoping I would be able to win a round or maybe a match or two, but now I’m here.”

On the other side of the court, Darcis was setting a record of his own. The 34-year-old Belgian missed the entire 2018 season due to injury and thus has no ranking on the ATP circuit – he needed to cash in on his Protected Ranking to make the draw in Pune. Getting to the semi-final in his first tournament since the 2017 Davis Cup final made him the first ever unranked semi-finalist on tour since 1990.

Karlovic though, had no sympathy as he fired down 33 aces – taking his tally in this tournament to 88 in four matches. With a serve as powerful and as potent as his, it gives him enough time and space to approach the net at ease and is one of the few serve and volley players still active on the circuit.

Then again, given his age, he did grow up in an era when serve and volley was the trend as opposed to the heavy-hitting baseline game of today.

“When I was young I used to watch Stefan Edberg a lot. Everyone was always doing that and that style is what I like to do,” he says. “Now nobody does that. So in the last few months (during the off-season) I was on YouTube a lot, watching videos of Edberg.” Though he doesn’t have the deft touch that the legendary Swede possessed, he has the wingspan to make himself a hard obstacle to get past at the net.

At 39, looking after his tall frame has been the biggest concern during the recovery phase after each match. Time and again he trains with his former doubles partner Frank Moser, who stands at 6-foot-5 himself.

“There is a lot of stretching involved now and we have to take care of every possible group of muscles,” Moser, who is in Pune as Karlovic’s coach, says. “Sometimes he needs that push to keep at it, but he is lucky because he’s not as injury prone as so many of the other tall guys.”

Karlovic, the ‘gentle giant’ with a salt and pepper beard, asserts his next goal now is to become the oldest ever player to be ranked in the top 100 — a record set by Ken Rosewall who was 45 in 1979, the same year Karlovic was born.

On Saturday though, the Croat has a chance to break a record he co-owns with Roger Federer. Both have won an ATP title at the age of 37, Karlovic winning at Los Cabos, Mexico in 2016. A win in the final in Pune will make him the oldest ever.

When reminded of that factoid by Somdev Devvarman during the courtside interview, Karlovic was as quick with his wit as his serves. “I know I am old,” the grand old man of tennis said.

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