Pune: Ivo Karlovic, the 39-year-old ‘gentle giant’, has developed a cult fan following for a number of reasons other than his monster serves and the incongruent ability to volley with his 6’11” height: for being among the funniest tennis players on social media, for his insane ace records, his five-set epics at Grand Slams, his incredible longevity, his raw passion for the game, his candid interviews even when he struggles with a stammer.
But in some sections, the Croatian is also criticised for being a ‘serve-bot’ – a trait that has often robbed him of hitting partners, having no strokes, slicing the ball too much and for his savage comments on the sport.
“Dr Ivo”, as he is called, embraces both sides with his deadpan manner and droll humour.
He is a player who has not only retained the old world charm of serve-and-volley but also kept it viable, becoming the oldest ATP finalist in over four decades at the Tata Open Maharashtra. Playing his first final in over two years, he was the runner-up to Kevin Anderson after coming within as close as two points to the title.
But mention age and quirky humour makes it appearance: “You are calling me old,” he told this writer before the final.
After the heart-breaking loss though, he was far more philosophical. “It didn’t work out how I wanted to, but this is life, you know. Hopefully next week will be better, although this has been an unbelievable week.
“I was actually here today, I didn’t not think I would do it. But you always want more and more. Right now, because I was this close, I am sad. But tomorrow, it will be good again,” he said. “The atmosphere was unbelievable, this what we love, what we live for.”
But there were plenty of positives for the Croatian, who said he came to Pune expecting to play couple of matches, after dropping down to the Challenger circuit last year and becoming the oldest player to win there, all to ensure he is in the top 100.
“I am happy to be the oldest… I am still here, still doing what I love to do and winning so hopefully that can keep on going. I want to be the oldest one ever in the top 100, I don’t know how much longer I have to be there. And to have fun and try to be healthy,” he had said after his win over teenager Felix Auger-Aliassime, who is 21 years his junior, in the first round.
“In the last year, I dropped out of the top 100, so I had to play Challengers which was difficult because I was already the oldest one and even if I stop it will be okay. But I was able to motivate myself and win, and it helped me come back. It also made me appreciate being here more,” he said. His final run will now take him to the top 70.
Learning from Edberg on YouTube
One of the reasons for his unprecedented success at this age is his style; but while his big-serving helps kills points soon, the game has changed a lot now and finding inspiration has become tougher. That’s when he banks on the internet, and watches videos of past greats.
“When I was young, I used to watch Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and everyone was always doing it so this is what I know and like to do. In the recent years I didn’t really have anybody to watch because nobody is doing that so right now in the last two months, I was on YouTube a lot, watching old clips of Edberg and it really helped.
The manner in which he honed his serve is another story befitting his giant frame. The all-time record-holder for aces – he served 124 in Pune and over 13,000 in his career – developed this weapon more out of necessity than choice.
“When I was young, maybe 13, I just liked to hit aces and that became my style. I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to hit with other kids over there [in war-torn Zagreb] so in the evening when the courts were empty I would go and just practice serves and that helped me a lot,” he said.
But he feels like today’s players may not even know how to volley properly.
“In the 80s, 90s when I was young and growing up and watching the old guys, everybody was on the net always and that is what I liked. It’s what I grew up on and throughout my career. Obviously now it is a lot more physical game so not a lot are doing it or even able to go on the net.”
His style, although beneficial to him, has often led his colleagues to be annoyed and even angry. Till a few years back, many players were unwilling to practise with him because he would not play the points. “I am now rallying more so they want to hit with me a little bit more now,” he laughed.
“On the court, everyone’s a little bit angry because they are hard points but everybody knows me and after the matches there are no hard feelings,” he explained.
Ask him about his dynamics in the locker room as the generation gap widens, he jokes that he has become wiser with age. But he admits that he doesn’t have a lot company in his old age.
“Everyone that was with me are gone! I know those guys who are a little bit older… it is easier to communicate. Overall everyone is really nice, so it easy. I am usually hanging out with the Croatians and all of players from ex-Yugoslavia, because of the language as well,” he explained.
Speaking of Croatia, who won the Davis Cup this year, Karlovic was present when the Fifa World Cup runners-up arrived home to ecstatic celebrations. “It was unbelievable... actually I was there, I was in Croatia and it was wild. Everybody was on the streets and having fun, it was a great atmosphere.”
‘All Twitter humour is mine’
Just like his fiery serve bombs, he is unafraid to drop truth bombs, from on-court coaching (everyone knows not to do it when the camera is on) to finally changing fifth set rules (who can stay up and watch?) to players letting agents use their social media.
“All mine [humour and opinions], he says about his banter on Twitter with a twinkle in his eye. “There are guys who are relaxed about it, they just want to have fun and there are other ones who are using it only to promote themselves. But I like running my own account,” he said, on the burning question among tennis fans regarding the source of his humour.
He employs the same humour when tacking the inevitable question on age, but ask him about fitness and how he manages to play consecutive matches and he reveals that it is harder mentally than it is physically.
“Off season was a little bit easier because usually I would train a lot more but in my old age, I am trying to go easy. Recovery sessions are a little bit longer now and I don’t play doubles anymore.
“What is difficult is the mental aspect. It’s not easy to have the motivation to wake up early to do all the work. But at the end of the day, this is what I love to do and I want to do it longer,” he said, adding that all he wants is to stay healthy and happy on the courts.
But the ever-witty player signed off saying “hopefully next year”, when he will be a 41. Given how he has pushed the boundaries of age, he might just be here.