Wimbledon: Karlovic a tall order for Andy Murray

Andy Murray takes on water during a practice session at Wimbledon yesterday. Picture: PA
Andy Murray takes on water during a practice session at Wimbledon yesterday. Picture: PA
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THE big men cometh. Andy Murray has already noted the preponderance of extremely lofty potential rivals left in the Wimbledon draw and today must seek to find a way of overcoming the tallest of them all, the 6ft 11in Ivo Karlovic.

In fact, seven of the 16 men left are 6ft 4in or taller. Murray is not one of them – his height in the official WTA media guide is given as 6ft 3in. But no-one should fall into the trap of painting Murray as the underdog against Karlovic in their fourth-round meeting, despite the marked difference in height. As well as being the No 3 seed, the Scot is unbeaten in five matches against the Croatian, one of which came on Murray’s way to the Wimbledon final three years ago.

Ivo Karlovic practises at Wimbledon yesterday. Picture: PA

Ivo Karlovic practises at Wimbledon yesterday. Picture: PA

That meeting was projected to be Karlovic’s last appearance at Wimbledon. He was, after all, 33 years-old when he lost to Murray in four sets, nine years after he had announced his arrival at the age of 24 with a high-profile first-round victory over Lleyton Hewitt, the then reigning Wimbledon champion.

Now 36, Karlovic attributes this longevity to being such a late starter; he is the oldest player to feature at this stage of a grand slam since Jimmy Connors at the US Open in 1999. “When I was young, I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to develop earlier, so I begin later,” Karlovic explained on Saturday night, before adding ominously: “That’s why I don’t feel that I’m used up.”

The passing years have certainly not sapped his strength. Indeed, the opposite appears to be true. Following his victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Saturday, he is the first player in more than 20 years to hit 40 or more aces in three successive tour matches.

It is clear to see why Murray made a point of focusing on one particular part of his game yesterday; return of service. He even made a spirited attempt to recreate the conditions where a man of nearly 7ft in height is volleying balls in your direction. It was notable that he had instructed coach Jonas Bjorkman to stand just behind the service line, a few yards further from the normal position on the baseline, and slam down serves as hard as he could towards him. Preparation is the key.

No-one could accuse Murray of being in any way dismissive of Karlovic, despite the Croat’s veteran status. In any case, he would be a fool not to recognise the dangers posed by someone whose serve was once compared to being machine-gunned by a giraffe.

Take Karlovic’s nearly 7-foot frame and his nearly 3-foot reach, and then add a jump of several inches, It is safe to say that the ball is being struck at least ten feet from the ground when he serves. Not even Bjokrman, who is 6ft, can hope to replicate that from a position a few yards in front of the baseline.

“Sorry, sorry,” said Bjorkman after one serve shot up quickly and too wide of Murray. “No, that’s perfect”, replied the Scot, relishing the unpredictability. He knows there is more of this coming his way today – and not only today, potentially. If Murray avoids death-by-howitzer this afternoon – he is likely to be on Centre Court around 3pm, following the intriguing Serena Williams v Venus clash – he will then face the winner of the Viktor Troicki-Vasel Pospisil encounter, both of whom are big-hitting servers, though ‘only’ 6ft 4in in height.

Murray was originally meant to practice on the more secluded court number 22 at Aorangi Park yesterday but ended up on court No 1, in full view of reporters and photographers. After being fairly intrusively treated by physio Clay Sniteman – Murray said it was “not pleasant” having someone he estimated weighted 90kg lying on top of him – on Centre Court on Saturday, with millions watching at home, perhaps privacy is no longer an issue.

There was certainly no sign of Murray being in any way tentative yesterday about the shoulder complaint that prompted him to call on the services of Sniteman during the third-round clash with Andreas Seppi, when the Scot’s future involvement in this year’s tournament was under severe threat. Murray saw no reason to hide himself away from view yesterday. Rather, he practised on the most public of the courts available. He served full-bloodedly and showed no sign of any ill-effects following Saturday’s scare, when his game suddenly collapsed and he looked in danger of slumping into the kind of funk that was once such a regular occurrence.

He has dismissed suggestions his use of a medical time-out was a pragmatic ploy rather than because he was in genuine need of treatment. Murray explained that Seppi’s own earlier break for medical attention had meant his body had cooled and then tightened, hence the need for treatment.

The players’ laughter together at the net at the end of the match, which Murray won in four sets, increased the suspicion they were both ‘at it’ to a degree. But Murray denied this yesterday in his column for the BBC.

“I didn’t really hear exactly what he said, but he said it and then laughed, so I laughed as well,” he explained. The controversy is over, for now. While the debate about time-outs will be revisited on many occasions, the remorseless nature of a grand slam tournament means Murray’s win over Seppi already feels like ancient history.

Coincidentally, there was controversy when Murray last met Karlovic at Wimbledon, in 2012. A higher than normal foot-fault count of 11 prompted the Croat to complain he had been victimised, and that there was bias in favour of Murray from one particular line judge. He may well feel persecuted against today if the Scot is able to combat his opponent’s big-hitting serve and delight the spectators.

Perhaps because of the relatively large age difference, Murray does not have a particularly close relationship with Karlovic. “I don’t know him unbelievably well, but I always say hi to him,” he said yesterday. “I think he is quite quiet, but he has obviously got a fun side in the way he celebrates matches and stuff. He seems like a fun guy. He has done a few things over the years.”

It would be a great tale if a 36-year-old could reach the last eight of a grand slam. Just not one the majority of those inside Centre Court today will want to see develop at the expense of the home favourite.