A MATCH in which so much of the focus had been concentrated on the giant proportions of Andy Murray’s super-sized opponent ended up hingeing on the tightest of margins.
Partly reliant on a Hawk-Eye challenge measured as being 2mm in his favour, Murray swept into the last eight at Wimbledon for the eighth successive time, beating the 6ft 11in Ivo Karlovic 7-6 (9-7), 6-4, 5-7, 6-4.
Murray’s remarkable consistency at Grand Slams has now stretched to 18 consecutive quarter-finals. The unseeded Vasek Pospisil is the man blocking his path to the semi-finals. The Canadian has fought every inch of the way and is bound to have suffered physically for playing three five-setters en route to the last eight of the singles. He is also ranked 56 in the world.
There are no guaranteed outcomes in tennis, but Murray could have been handed a trickier obstacle than Pospisil, that’s clear. Knowledge of this would have made defeat by Karlovic all the more painful to accept yesterday.
There were the usual frantic, stressful moments. A dinked backhand by Karlovic in the seventh game of the fourth set, when it was 3-3, looked to have landed just in, meaning the score would have gone to deuce on the Croatian’s service game.
But although Murray played the ball back he also challenged – and Karlovic’s shot was judged by Hawk-Eye to have drifted 2mm wide, with the margin of error set at 3mm. Murray had the break and he went on to take the set, and the match. It proved the crucial turning point.
Murray needed to be at his best to deal with Karlovic, whose high-velocity serving generated plenty of woo-ing from the crowd. But Murray also had an effective weapon. Remarkably, he relied heavily on a lob shot that might have seemed injudicious against such a man-mountain. He was successful with two in succession in the fourth set.
Some sympathy was extended towards Karlovic as he trudged back to the baseline – if it is possible to feel pity for someone so prone to bullying opponents with the weapon that is his serve. He had already almost taken off a line judge’s shoulder with one of his howitzers.
Although aged 36 and deemed very much to be in the twilight of his career, Karlovic said himself that he felt far from “used up”. True enough, he added 29 aces yesterday to his total of 136 over the first three rounds, including four in succession as he fought back from love 40 down on his own serve at the end of the first set, forcing a tie-break, which Murray won 9-7.
Such was the obsession with record serves, size 16 feet and the generally freakish physical qualities of the opponent on the other side of the net that perhaps many were guilty of overlooking the central factor on which this contest hinged: Murray is the far better tennis player.
This was proved again on Centre Court yesterday, just as it has been proved in other tournaments, and other venues, from here in SW19 to Japan. This was Murray’s sixth victory in succession over Karlovic. The giant of the courts has been portrayed as a James Bond villain. In reality, he must rank among Murray’s favourite opponents. He has never lost to him. It wasn’t all plain sailing, of course. When is that ever the case with Murray?
He was a picture of clear-eyed determination in the first two sets. Indeed, this was the case for most of the third set as well.
When he lashed a return into the net in the 12th game, it was only Murray’s sixth unforced error of the match. But it brought up set point for Karlovic. Murray’s seventh unforced error arrived at the very next point when he was long with a forehand return. The set had slipped away in the blink of an eye. The match had turned on just a few moments, and would do so again.
No-one is saying that watching Karlovic send down booming serve after booming serve is doing wonders for tennis as a spectator sport. But he can be an endearing performer. When another Hawk-Eye challenge by Murray was called in the Croat’s favour, he signalled towards the heavens, as if to say: praise the Lord.
Karlovic seemed in better humour here than on the last occasion he faced Murray at Wimbledon, when he was foot-faulted 11 times. It led him to complain about feeling persecuted by the Wimbledon officials.
Here he was at the mercy of a Scot on a mission. Murray did not even seem unduly bothered by Karlovic’s serve. Yes, they were being thrashed down in his usual style. Yes, they were often coming at speeds of over 130mph. But the Scot knew he simply had to concentrate on holding his own serve.
Regarded as among the best returners in the business, chances on the Karlovic serve were bound to come Murray’s way sooner or later. Indeed, one arrived as quickly as the second game.
Murray had a break point on Karlovic’s opening service game but while the Croat managed to see off the threat, it was a source of some hope for Murray. As was his opponent’s profligacy.
The Croatian was guilty of making too many unforced errors. The final total was nine for Murray, 32 for Karlovic.
The beaten man was given a particularly rousing reception at the end, rightly so for someone who, as well as giving a good account of himself, could well have played his last match at Wimbledon.
He went down fighting on Centre Court, playing one of the shots of the tournament when he reached a long way down to get to a Murray return and sent back a winner on the half-volley in the ninth match of the fourth set.
But this was a flash of brilliance; Murray’s sustained quality was the difference.