Australian Open, Third Round (Day Five)
(3) Federer d. Karlovic, 7/6 7/5 6/3
There is a pervasive tendency – entirely inexcusable – for commentators calling Ivo Karlovic’s matches to treat him like a kind of mythical beast the hero must overcome in order to fulfil their quest. Inevitably, there is ample discussion of how players must make the most of their few chances, and of strategies to combat his serve. It’s rather like listening to Warcraft players thrash out tactics for taking down a particularly tough dragon. At least early on today, there was no comparable analysis of what Karlovic needed to do in order to see off Roger Federer, since Karlovic apparently isn’t a hero on a quest of his own. Offsetting this generally dehumanising tendency, it proved to be a kindness when Jim Courier brought up Karlovic’s popularity on Twitter.
Service holds were already ticking away with metronomic fluency through the early part of today’s match when Courier essayed the fairly uncontroversial point that Federer would not bother coming over his backhand returns today. It was a disposable comment, and would have worked adequately as a brief aside, but Courier characteristically lavished considerable airtime on exploring it fully. His point, apparent to everyone even before he dissected it, was that Karlovic’s freakish delivery presents difficulties for one-handed backhands.
Until 6-6 in the first set tiebreak, Courier’s analysis not only had the virtue of being obvious, it also seemed right. Following an excellent point to save set point – which I will return to – Federer suddenly stepped in and ripped a backhand return winner off Karlovic’s first serve, setting up a set point of his own, which he duly converted. When brilliance so succinctly defies common wisdom, it is easy to call it genius. There were a number of red and white banners fluttering around Rod Laver Arena telling us exactly that, and that we need to be quiet while Federer works.
But this wasn’t the point of the match. The prior point was. Karlovic had played a strong tiebreak, and earned his set point by outplaying a tentative Federer from the baseline, which Hawkeye proved is Federer’s preferred line. At 5-6, Federer chipped his return low, and then drilled his follow-up passing shot straight at Karlovic’s hip. Given the Croat’s wingspan, the efficacy of the tactic should have been unquestionable, but he was volleying well, and had so far fended balls from his body expertly. He reflexed back a drop-volley, and moved in. Federer dashed to the forecourt, and, noting Karlovic edging in, flicked an audacious lob. Karlovic leapt, but could only frame it. An inch lower, and the Croat would have had the set. The margins at this level are almost nothing, and it is astonishing how effectively the best players manoeuvre within them.
Federer only broke serve twice in the match, once in each of the remaining sets, but it was enough to achieve a straight sets win. The first break clinched the second set, courtesy of an outrageous blocked backhand return on the full stretch. He faced two break points of his own, which is turns out is more than Karlovic’s average in their encounters. They have now played eleven times in eight years, and Karlovic has earned just 17 break points, and converted one of them. He should know by now that you only get limited chances on the Federer serve, and that you simply must make the most of them.