| Lleyton Hewitt feels there wasn’t much he could do out there
Ivo the Terrible made Wimbledon history twice Monday. First, he was the biggest object ever to be brought on to the premises, unless you count one of Cliff Richard’s stretch limos. Second, he became the only man in the Open Era to defeat the defending champion in the first round.
It was gargantuan news, literally and metaphorically. An unknown qualifier, who has tried and failed to make the main draw of 10 Grand Slams, fetches up on the Centre Court at Wimbledon against Lleyton Hewitt, the most steel-nerved, battle-hardened warrior on the tour, and still it was a victory for the little big man.
Ivo Karlovic’s four-set triumph, 1-6, 7-6, 6-3, 6-4, was greeted by incredulity and tumult from the crowd, who had undoubtedly never heard of the Croatian before. And they could hardly put him down as Goran Ivanisevic’s little brother. At 6ft 10inch and nearly 16 stone, he towered over Hewitt by a foot and outweighed him by a whole Daniela Hantuchova.
But there, it seemed, his superiority would rest. In every other department, the heavyweight was Hewitt. The former world No. 1 and winner of two Grand Slam titles, including Wimbledon last year, has earned $11.5 million prize money to Karlovic’s $155,000. The Australian trots the globe in luxury, fame and a state of almost permanent belligerence. The Croatian was lucky to play Surbiton in June.
He was certainly lucky to finish playing Surbiton. He was almost defaulted after missing a ball girl with an angrily thrown racket and finished up paying more in fines than was yielded by his prize-money.
Who does that remind you of'
Sure enough, his hero, his inspiration, is fellow-countryman Goran Ivanisevic, the 2001 Wimbledon champion. “He was always my idol and I see him as a god,” said the 24-year-old Karlovic, whose happiness was completed when his deity chose the mortal means of a telephone to send immediate post-match congratulations.
He deserved them. For sheer nerve and power serving he was pretty god-like himself.
“There wasn’t a whole heap I could do out there,” Hewitt said with a semblance of generosity afterwards. The Australian had helped himself to the first set as his novice opponent blundered about in the glare, mistiming his serves and spooning volleys into the net.
It seemed easy, routine. Fatal thought.
In the second set, Hewitt’s brain was away waltzing with Matilda. He missed the opportunity of set point and as the sunshine moved across the court from behind a cloud, it unveiled another side of the Croatian giant. He started moving with purpose to the net, approaching behind serves, no longer faltering but firing. The vast difference in height began to tell.
If Hewitt was shooting serves of modest speed from window-box level, Karlovic was taking deadly aim from the attic. By virtue of winning the second set tie-break — a clean ace and a service winner produced his set point — the underdog found himself level.
Instead of folding under the unaccustomed pressure, his game telescoped onwards and upwards, mirroring his own formative years.
Much of his post-match press conference was taken up with discussion of his size. “Were you a big baby'” Bud Collins, the doyen of American tennis writing, wanted to know. Karlovic preferred to think he was average. “After, I start to get taller,” he said endearingly.
Even his parents were “average” in height. He had wondered about that. “Postman maybe,” he said with a winning smile.
He was delightful, manfully overcoming a stammer, and scarcely able to believe the reality of the event that had just engulfed the first day of the tournament. That morning he had awoken in his (probably average) guest house in Earls Court, by teatime he was the most celebrated man in Britain, not to mention Zagreb.
The unravelling of his destiny stunned him.
“The first set, I was scared. But after I saw that I can beat him, I started to play better.” He did. He jettisoned his fear and began to relax, loosening the shoulder that was firing the cannonballs and moving less like a fridge-freezer on a set of supermarket wheels.
Hewitt, on the other hand, was making errors in his placement so driven was he into tight corners, both in his mind and on the court.
There is a suggestion that the Australian is suffering multiple distractions. Having lost his No. 1 status to Andre Agassi this year, he was defeated in the first round at the French Open and he is also taking on the governors of men’s tennis with a lawsuit.
In brief, they say he missed a press conference. He says he didn’t know about it. Hackles raised all round, lawyers in clover. Did it weigh on him'
“No, not at all,” he said. Aussies don’t make excuses as a rule.
He had one, though. His opponent was absolutely vast. So tall that one finely executed lob from Hewitt, normally a sure-fire winner, was scooped out of the sky and dispatched into the turf like Zeus sending down a thunderbolt. A champion of his mettle would have risen to the challenge, but Hewitt remained resolutely 5ft 11inch.
By the end of the match, 18 aces from Karlovic had sent tremors through the 26,000 petunias planted round the premises, not to mention the rest of the men in the main draw. And that was nothing.
He served 46 aces in four sets in his final qualifying match at Roehampton. Those of us of a British persuasion should probably not contemplate the fact that he lurks in Greg Rusedski’s quarter of the draw.
Perhaps he will not get that far. Perhaps this was a once-in-a-lifetime arousal to greatness, born supersonic serving and memories of the awesome god Goran. Of course, Ivanisevic had the help of at least three personalities to draw on in times of sporting duress. It made you wonder how many Ivo’s there might be.
He gave the question serious thought and shot back the answer through a doorway. “Sometimes two — when I get mad.” So the defeated defending champion shouldn’t feel too bad. Not only was Ivo terrible, there was two of him.