Like a marksman squeezing off rounds of ammo, Ivo Karlovic eyed his target, reared back, uncoiled his body and let fly. The projectile whistled through the air and, more often than not, found its mark. When Karlovic completed his third-round match at Wimbledon last Friday, he had fired 46 aces past France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to advance in four sets. "[I had] a feeling of helplessness," said Tsonga, who fired 26 aces himself but still felt like a man who'd brought a stiletto to a gunfight. "He served well, and that's it. What can I say?"
It's been easy to forget how important pure power still is in tennis. The previous generation was filled with bionic bangers, who beat the hell out of the ball and earned militaristic nicknames such as Scud (Mark Philippoussis), Pistol (Pete Sampras) and Boom Boom (Boris Becker). But then came the era of Roger Federer, with his stylish tennis, and Rafael Nadal, who hits plenty hard but drizzles his shots with funky spin. Plus the grass at Wimbledon now plays slower—unintentionally, the organizers maintain—further dampening pace. Yet the first week of play at the All England Club served as a reminder that the ability "to take bug cuts," as they say in tennis-speak, is all but essential for success.
Through the first week the men were holding serve 82% of the time. There was Andy Roddick, locking and loading his serve and forehand and advancing to the fourth round. There he beat Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic, a 6'5" behemoth whose forehand should require a permit to possess. Even Federer, the odds-on favorite to win Wimbledon for the sixth time, smoked 59 aces in his first four matches.
Unadulterated power has long been voguish in the women's game. Analyst Mary Carillo is credited with coining the phrase Big Babe Tennis, and girl power was on full display last week. Venus and Serena Williams steamrollered their opponents. Sabine Lisicki, the 5'10" German teenager who took out French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third round, may not volley well or be much of a strategist, but as long as she keeps serving in excess of 120 mph, her stock will continue to rise. It's hard to imagine even the 5'6" but hard-hitting former No. 1 Justine Henin having much of an answer for the power of today's stars. "You definitely need a weapon," says Lisicki.
July 5, 2009
Still, it is Karlovic who stands tallest, literally, as the exponent of raw, inelegant power. The 6'10" Croatian has an ordinary game that is supplemented by an extraordinary serve, which routinely clocks in at 130 mph. Sometimes it's not enough: In the first round of the French Open he set a record for aces in a match (55) and still lost to Lleyton Hewitt in five sets. But at Wimbledon, Karlovic used his power to devastating effect; through Monday he had gone 128 straight games on grass without having his serve broken. Accuse him of being one-dimensional, and it's fine by him. "If I can win with only one shot," Karlovic says, "I'm a genius. So I like it."
As Karlovic thumped ace after ace on the grass, it called to mind an expression not from tennis but from golf: Kindly replace your divots.
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