Sunday, October 9, 2011

After almost flunking out, Karlovic aces big test

   He came within an eyelash of losing in the first round, struggled with his serve in the semifinals and met a player formerly ranked No. 4 in the world in the final.
   But Ivo Karlovic overcame everything the $100,000 RelyAid Natomas Racquet Club Challenger threw at him. It helps when you're 6-foot-11, well-coordinated and mentally tough.
   In a tantalizing matchup of power vs. speed, the second-seeded Karlovic edged top-seeded James Blake 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 Sunday in Sacramento for his first title in three years.
   Karlovic, a 32-year-old Croat, attributed his drought to "injuries and ups and downs." Ranked a career-high No. 14 in 2008, he missed the last six months of 2010 because of Achilles' tendon-related surgery and plunged to No. 239 in March.
   "Now everything is good. I've been playing since January," said Karlovic, who rose from No. 76 to No. 61 with the Sacramento title.
   Karlovic, the tallest player ever to be ranked in the top 100 and owner of the world's fastest serve (156 mph), also is enjoying life off the court. He took a month off after the U.S. Open to stay home in Miami while his Jamaican wife, Alsi, gave birth to the couple's first child, a daughter named Jada.
   "It's the best thing that can happen in life," Karlovic said.
   In his first match after his layoff, Karlovic saved two match points in a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (8) victory over Martin Fischer of Austria. On the first match point, Fischer ripped what appeared to be a winning first-service return deep to Karlovic's backhand. But Karlovic, showing surprising quickness, slugged a cross-court shot, and Fischer netted an ill-advised backhand drop shot. 
   In the quarterfinals, Karlovic survived in two tough sets against Thiemo de Bakker, the 2006 Wimbledon junior champion who reached No. 40 in the world last year. Then Karlovic converted only 56 percent of his first serves in a 7-6 (6), 3-6, 6-4 victory over former top-20 player Sam Querrey.  
   Karlovic found his rhythm in the final, increasing his first-service percentage to 71. He improved to 6-3 lifetime against Blake, a 31-year-old Tampa, Fla., resident who missed three months last year because of knee tendinitis. Six of the previous meetings came on the ATP World Tour (the major leagues of tennis), one occurred in the French Open, and one took place in the Davis Cup.
   Adding to the ATP-like atmosphere Sunday were an announced sellout crowd of 725, the largest in the tournament's seven-year history, and the presence of Brad Gilbert, the renowned coach, commentator and author who served as the master of ceremonies.
   The match was even closer than the score indicated. When Blake stepped to the line to serve at 4-5 in the third set, each player had won 14 games and broken the other once. 
   But Blake double-faulted to trail 0-30, and Karlovic's backhand return of a first serve handcuffed the approaching Blake to make it 0-40. Blake then hit a cross-court forehand that appeared to be long, but the ball was ruled in, and Karlovic netted a forehand for 15-40. It was only a brief reprieve for Blake, though. On the next point, he sprayed a backhand wide to end the match.
   Karlovic fired 23 aces overall, faced only one break point in the match and — brace yourself — won all 20 points on his serve in the last set, including 12 aces. Several times in the match, after watching another Karlovic missile whiz past him out of reach, Blake flailed weakly at an imaginary ball as if to say, "This is hopeless."
   Facing Karlovic's serve is "not fun," said Blake, who improved from No. 75 to No. 67 by reaching the final. "His serve is part of it, but the rest of his game was in form today. He returned well and put a lot of pressure on me. There's nothing you can do about the serve."
   Nicholas Monroe and Jack Sock know the feeling. The American wild cards lost to hard-serving Australian left-handers Carsten Ball, 6-foot-6, and Chris Guccione, 6-7, in the doubles final, 7-6 (3), 1-6, 10-5 tiebreak.
   Ball, 24, and Guccione, 26, reached the quarterfinals of the 2009 U.S. Open and have represented Australia in the Davis Cup. Ball, a Newport Beach native and resident, plays for Australia because his father, former top-25 doubles player Syd, is from Down Under.
   Monroe, 29, and Sock, 19, played in their first tournament together but have known each other for years in the Kansas City, Mo., area.
   Sock turned pro in July and won the U.S. Open mixed doubles title with Melanie Oudin last month. Monroe, who's listed at 5-10 but appears smaller, lost in doubles final at Natomas for the second consecutive year. He played with Donald Young in 2010. Young, the 2008 Sacramento Challenger singles champion, is playing in Asia on the ATP World Tour.
   Intercollegiate Tennis Association in Pacific Palisades -- Stanford's Mallory Burdette and Nicole Gibbs defeated Florida's Sophie Oyen and Allie Will 6-2, 7-6 (2) to win the doubles title in the Women's All-American Championships.

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