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The World According To Ivo

DEUCE Australian Open 2012

Karlovic© ATPIvo Karlovic hit 632 aces in 37 matches last year according to RICOH ATP MatchFacts.

At 6' 10", Ivo Karlovic is the tallest player on the ATP World Tour. Yet he's made an art form of communicating in the shortest of short-form mediums, Twitter, showcasing his dry wit and, at times, his darkest hours through social networking.

Ivo Karlovic saunters onto the mound at Cardines Field, home to a north-eastern American collegiate baseball team, the Newport Gulls. On this day there seems to be more people throwing out first pitches than there are in the stands. Not surprisingly, there is an eclectic mix of pitches thrown: high and tight, outside, in the dirt… and they were the good ones.

Mercifully, Karlovic steps up to show the cavalcade of pitchers how it should be done. Looking relaxed in blue jeans and black tee, he winds up his 6' 10" frame and unleashes a laser that hones in on the catcher's glove, hitting it with a thud. The smattering of fans erupt in a dull roar as Karlovic leaves the mound with an understated wave and a contented smile that says 'That wasn’t bad'.

Karlovic, Newport, July 2011Should Karlovic, who was in town for the Campbell's Hall Of Fame Tennis Championships, have expected any different? The man with perhaps the best-placed serve in men's tennis should be able to hit a glove from 60 feet, six inches, right? After all, he's made a career from making short, sharp statements, normally delivered in the form of double-digit ace counts – often in the first set alone.

Affectionately nicknamed 'Dr. Ivo', after the Austin Powers character Dr. Evil, Karlovic is concise off the court, too. The tallest man on the ATP World Tour, @ivokarlovic has this year emerged as one of the most entertaining players to follow on Twitter, the short-form social media phenomenon. The Croat has developed a cult following with his dry wit and introspection. Consider, if you will, these gems from 2011.

"It is like alcoholism: You are never cured."

First day of practice in Cincinnati.. Some grandpa asked me 'Who are you?' I answered 'Nobody'. He said 'Ah ok' and left.

Some guy on the street just asked me where he can buy weed!! Maybe I should shave.

You can't expect to be a tennis player and have no strings attached.

I remember practicing with Rafa in French Open '05 & thinking 2 myself: this guy plays good. He might reach Q or semis one day. I was right.

#worstpickuplines Come watch me serve

Karlovic, Hewitt, London, June 2003Having battled a stammer most of his life, Karlovic has found solace in the ease and familiarity of the medium. He finds communicating to his 23,000 Twitter followers much less intimidating than fronting 100 or so media members in the Wimbledon interview room, as he did after his first-round upset of defending champion Lleyton Hewitt in 2003.

During one of many flights last year, Karlovic was an interested viewer of The King's Speech, the tale of King George VI's battle to overcome his speech impediment. The movie, which won four Academy awards, held particular poignancy for the man whom has walked many a mile in the King's shoes.

"It wasn't an emotional experience for me, but I liked the movie because it portrayed how it really is for anybody who has that problem," Karlovic said. "The movie helped people, who don't know anything about it, to see how it really is for us. Growing up people are not educated enough about it. I already knew the [remedial] techniques as I went to a speech therapist a few times. It is something you have to work on every day. It’s not something you can overcome overnight. It is a long process. It is like alcoholism: you are never cured; you always have to think about it."

"That night I questioned whether tennis was for me."

Another movie that resonated with Karlovic was The Pursuit Of Happyness, the 2006 biographical drama based on American Chris Gardner's struggle with homelessness before he went on to become a successful stock broker. The scene that hit home the hardest was that of Gardner, played by Will Smith, sheltering in a subway bathroom with his young son. Karlovic, who had rarely spoken of finding himself in a similar situation early in his career, dropped this cryptic tweet last year.

Just watched Pursuit of Happyness for the first time. Had a deja vu when I saw the subway toilet scene.

In his early 20s, Karlovic spent a harrowing winter's night on the streets in France when he couldn’t afford a hotel room during a stretch of ITF Futures events. One night, without any better options, Karlovic sought shelter in a public bathroom. "I don't remember the city, because I played many Futures in a row. A sponsor promised me he would send me money because I didn’t have enough, but he never did. It was a cold night and I didn't have anything, so I had to sleep for an hour or so [in a public bathroom]. It was like the scene from the movie. That night I questioned whether tennis was for me. But I always believed that one day it would be better."

Karlovic, Cincinnati, August 2008Career prize money of more than $4 million has kept Karlovic, a four-time titlist on the ATP World Tour, off the streets for many years now. He reached a career-high South African Airways ATP Ranking of No. 14 in August 2008, shortly after he defeated then World No. 1 Roger Federer at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. Although his backcourt game has improved markedly later in his career, the foundation of Karlovic's success is rooted in his serve, one of the nastiest weapons ever unleashed on the return game, triangulating a trio of advantages: unrivaled contact-point height, wicked placement and raw speed. Karlovic is credited with the fastest serve ever recorded (156 mph) and at one time held the record for most aces in a match (78) before John Isner and Nicolas Mahut made a mockery of all ace tallies that had come before their 2010 Wimbledon epic.

How good is the Karlovic serve? He leads the RICOH ATP MatchFacts career list of service games won. Throughout his career Karlovic has won 91 per cent of his service games, bettering the clips of all the No. 1s, including Sampras, Federer and Becker, and the super servers Roddick, Ivanisevic and Krajicek. On the flip side, he sits alone at the bottom of the list of return games won, with a conversion rate of just nine per cent.

How tough is he to break? Of the 25 sets Karlovic has played against Federer, more than half (13) have gone to tie-breaks. In six career meetings against the Croat, Mardy Fish has earned a grand total of five service breaks and has a 1-5 career record against the giant. Little wonder that Fish tells DEUCE that Karlovic is one player he never wants to see on the other side of the net. "Karlovic takes the racquet out of your hand completely; you feel very uncomfortable on the court," Fish says. "You don't play your best tennis and [he] keeps you out of your rhythm for sure."

Karlovic, Nadal, Indian Wells, March 2011Karlovic certainly took then World No. 1 Rafael Nadal out of his comfort zone last year in the BNP Paribas Open quarter-finals at Indian Wells. Watching from the stands, new tournament owner Larry Ellison grew paler with each point of the third set as the match pulsated towards a decisive tie-break. Karlovic came within two points of bundling out the event's biggest draw card in front of a near-capacity crowd, saving two match points before falling 5-7, 6-1, 7-6(7). "His serve was unstoppable," Nadal said after the match. "In the tie-break I was really nervous."

As Karlovic gets set for his 13th year on tour, he’ll be hoping to recapture the form he showed in 2010, when he raced to a 17-9 start on the year through Madrid before undergoing surgery on his heel. (A surgeon removed a small part of bone that was cutting into the Achilles. "I was playing with pain for six months," Karlovic said.) Last season's 16-21 record was his first negative return in six years.

Karlovic will turn 33 next month, but given his low-impact playing style – often it's one-and-done points – there's no reason he can't continue for two or three more seasons if his form holds. Karlovic remains ever-mindful that he is a late bloomer - a product of his unconventional development in Croatia – and is determined to squeeze as many seasons from his body as possible.

"I would still be serving after dark. People would tell me, 'It's late, you must go.'"

In his early teens Karlovic was forced to wait until very late in the day before he could get court time and then would serve for hours at a time, continuing until well after dark. The tradeoff – to put it kindly – was that his groundstrokes didn't improve at the same clip as his serve. "Weeks would go by when all I would do was serve. But it was probably only for one year that it was hard for me to hit with anybody else. Mostly I would practise at a club and hit with other kids every other day.

"I was 14, 15 and in the evening I would wait till the courts would be empty and I would get my balls and serve for hours. I would still be serving after dark. People would tell me, 'It's late, you must go.' I liked it because if you don't see, it looks faster"

No-one is telling Karlovic it is time to go anymore, whether it be into retirement or in another direction with his Twitter material. But when the time does come, Karlovic may find the answer to the question he posed rhetorically to the Twittersphere: Can I unfollow myself? 

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