ATP Tennis 360

September 20, 2009 10:46 AM

The curse of the aces

Croatia lost to Czech Republic in the Davis Cup semifinal 0-3. Probably they have paid the not so lungimirant choice to play on the indoor clay at Porec, in the same arena where they outreached the United States in June, when Blake surrenderd twice, after as many epic five setter, to Cilic and Karlovic. The miracle hasn't repeated, fatally obstacled by another unalterable, infallible law of modern tennis: the curse of the aces record.

In 12 of the last 13 matches when a player equalled or improved the record for the greatest number of aces served in a single match, he finished to lost the encounter. All the top-5 record holders established this not-envied primate losing the match. Ivo Karlovic had already got the byline on this sub-Hall of Fame-category twice. In 2005 he surrendered to the Italian Daniele Bracciali after hitting 51 aces: the double-specialist from Tuscany won 6-7 7-6 3-6 7-6 12-10.

On the grass, you could object, serving so many aces could be easier than on slower surfaces, and anyway that was not an absolute record: the unlucky Swedish Joachim Johansson, now retired after a series of injuries, lost to Andre Agassi, the best returner in the modern era, 67 76 76 64, at the 2005 Australian Open R16. This year he did better against Hewitt, capable to show his "Rusty" face coming back from two sets down against the Croat and surviving to 55 aces.

The same fate attended Richard Krajcek at the 1999 Us Open: 49 aces and a defeat in a dramatic five setter against Yevgeny Kafelnikov (7-6 7-6 3-6 1-6 7-6). Goran Ivanisevic, with his venomous left-handed first serve held the record until 2003, ex aequo with the Australian Mark Philippoussis (only exception to the rule, having he won against Agassi that match), losing notwithstanding 46 aces, to Magnus Norman in 1997 Wimbledon 2R; on the same grass, on the SW19 Central Court he had already failed to win the 1992 final to Andre Agassi: 37 aces hadn't helped Mister Ace, so labelled after the 1477 aces served in a single season. Even Guga Kuerten lost to the Canadian Daniel Nestor in a Davis Cup rubber when he served a respectable amount of 46 aces.

Until two days ago, the absolute record in tennis belonged to the American Ed Kauder, who served 59 aces against his compatriot Ham Richardson in the 1955 Usa Championships first round, on the grass at Forest Hills. Obviously it was Richardson to win 6-2 3-6 9-11 10-8 6-0.

Ivo Karlovic has established a threshold diffilultly surmountable in the immediate future: 78 aces (to be clear, 19 games and a half played so that his adversary doesn't touch the ball) against Radek Stepanek, in the first singles rubber of the Davis semifinal, losing 76 67 76 67 16-14 after six hours of foolish war of nerves, in the longest Davis Cup rubber since the tiebreak was introduced in 1989, conferming all the fears of the Croat giant in the "jeu decisif". Yet this conclusion, this solution should have been likened to by the 6'10" NBA-style batsman. Last year he played 57 tiebreak out of 58 matches, and this year he's already reached quota 40.

Inevitably, if you consider that he, at 30th August, he registered the 87% of first serve points and only 22% of 1st serve return points. Practically, he doesn't return while the others have to see his serve before imagining to touch the ball or send it to the other side of the net. His mental strength sustaining him in serving like a machine (against Stepanek he displayed 210 km/h angled aces after over five hours like he had just finish finish his warm-up rallies) usually abandons him when he most needs it: he's the recordman of five setters played in career and, at the same time, the player who has lost most of them.

In this few data we could see the essence of Ivo, with his contrasts and his solid work ethic. You can't arrive to be n.14 in the world ranking, you can't defeat Roger Federer as he did last year in Cincinnati without maximize your physical and technical skills.

Evidently you can't expect a 207 cm player has in the feet speed his atout. But now he's effectively an extremely better player respect to 2003, when he revealed to the world defeating the title-holder Lleyton Hewitt at Wimbledon. He was a journeyman, then, a 24-years-old at his first Grand Slam match and at his 11th Atp-level tournament. He lost the first set, but he dug deep and blitzed the Australian wrapping-up a 1-6 7-6 6-3 6-4 win. Hewitt became the first defending Wimbledon men's champion in the Open era to lose in the first round and only the second to exit so early in the tournament 126-year history after Manolo Santana, beaten by Charlie Pasarell in 1967.

"When I was younger" Karlovic said, "my parents haven't so much money to rent the courts, so the only thing I could afford was entering when everyone else was gone out and try serving for hours". This training undeniably helped him, but it's not his only quality. Serving so many aces, in such a long match, is a demonstration of character and tenacity. Besides, the lack of mobility forced him to learn coming to the net, to avoid playing defensive strokes from the baseline. Also if he built a decent forehand, Karlovic perfected an efficient net play, with precise back-spin approaches, helped by his frightening "wing-span".

And here comes the contrasts of his personality. His vaguely menacing silhouette hide a witty man: "I's so tall that in Usa they mistake me for an NBA champion. But there's an advantage of being 6'10": when I go out with my friends it's impossible that we lose ourselves. I'm their navigator. Contemporarily I can't hide myself from the police if I should get into trouble".

He showed the same wit against Tommy Haas at Stockholm two years ago, in a drop serve, a sort of tribute to Michael Chang and his underhand serve in the 1989 Roland Garros final that drove Lendl mad.

The fragile giant, the King of Aces often falling down one step from victory, has to fight with stutter, reduced but not completely erased yet. But he just recorded some rap songs and in July he realized a duet with Novak Djokovic.

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