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Thursday, May 31, 2007
Karlovic: A giant among men

There is a giant among men at the French Open this week, and no, before you ask, it isn't Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer. His name is Ivo Karlovic.

One look at Karlovic, who's from Zagreb, Croatia, and you immediately ask yourself, "Why is this guy not playing for the NBA?" Karlovic, you see, is 6-foot-10, which makes him the tallest player to rank in the Top 100 (he's currently No. 85) in the history of the ATP tour.

His brand of tennis, predictably, reflects his stature -- big serve, not much else. He's a one-trick pony, but what a trick it is. He can ace his opponents in any direction since his height creates insane angles. Coming into Roland Garros, Karlovic was No. 2 in aces, with 332. Ivan Ljubicic was No. 1, but only because he played more matches (33 versus 18). Karlovic had won 92 percent of his service games, which was tops on tour, ahead of Andy Roddick's 89 percent.

If Karlovic doesn't win the point on his serve, he's often in trouble. What he plays can technically be called tennis -- he's holding a racket and trying to hit the ball over the net -- but his ground strokes are wildly inconsistent, his movement painfully awkward. He's got tremendous wingspan, of course, and his volleys are decent. I saw him beat Mardy Fish in San Jose, on a fast hard court, and Fish, no textbook technician himself, had this look like, "What sport are we playing because it's certainly not tennis?"

By all rights, Karlovic shouldn't win a match on clay, which rewards smooth, athletic movers. Yet he knocked off James Blake in the first round in Paris this week, and his only career title came on clay, in Houston, this spring.

I say this with fondness: The man is a freak.

Karlovic came from a meager background, taking up tennis at the age of six, without the benefit of a coach or funding from a tennis federation. Inspired by Boris Becker and his countryman, Goran Ivanisevic, he fell in love with the game. But during his country's war for independence, in the early 1990s, when money and available tennis courts were scarce, Karlovic was pushed into (what else?) basketball. Still, he'd sneak out to serve buckets of balls for hours on end; he credits this practice, and not his height, for developing his killer serve.

He eventually found his way back to his true calling and played dinky club championships to earn enough traveling money. He turned pro in 2000, and earned his first big win against Lletyon Hewitt at Wimbledon in 2003. (The picture of Hewitt looking up to shake Ivo's hand is one of the all-time classics.)

Karlovic seems like a sweet, socially awkward guy who speaks with a stutter (at least when he talks in English). He isn't a rising star, like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. And he's not a threat to win a major unless he gets on a real serving roll. Maybe I relate to him because he's like most rec players -- he relies heavily on his one weapon to compensate for the many chinks in his armor -- but in an era of Nadals and Federers, Ivo is undeniably a unique and fascinating guy to watch.