By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 8, 2009
In their five previous meetings, Ivo Karlovic had never managed to break Andy Roddick's vaunted serve.
With the towering Croatian doing so twice Friday, their quarterfinal match at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic proved two things:
Roddick's serve isn't entirely where he'd like it to be following a month-long break. But the top-ranked American continues to show newfound poise on court, even when points don't unfold as scripted.
And that goes a long way in tennis, a sport in which forces beyond players' control -- whether a gust of wind, a cruel net cord or a 6-feet-10 ace-blasting machine like Karlovic -- often conspire against them.
To the delight of a wildly partisan crowd, Roddick broke back after falling behind to Karlovic in both sets to advance to Saturday's semifinals with a 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-5) victory.
The achievement embellishes his already impressive record in tiebreaks, tops among all players in the men's game this season, to 29-6.
He'll face fellow American John Isner, who, at 6-9, boasts a serve that rivals Karlovic's in its pace and peculiar trajectory, in a Saturday evening semifinal.
A former NCAA standout at Georgia, Isner blasted 17 aces en route to upsetting eighth-seed Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic in Friday's last quarterfinal, 6-3, 6-7 (12-10), 6-2.
Saturday's other semifinal will pit the tournament's defending champion, Juan Martín del Potro of Argentina, against fourth-seeded Fernando González of Chile.
Del Potro, 20, advanced without picking up his racket after Sweden's Robin Soderling pulled out of their quarterfinal Friday with an ailing right elbow.
Afterward, del Potro spent about 90 minutes practicing at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center to fine-tune his strokes and rhythm and planned to spend the balance of the day resting.
González ousted Germany's Tommy Haas, who hurt his own cause with a self-defeating funk and fell, 7-5, 6-4.
It's a pity Haas hasn't mastered the art of moving on after a bad play or bit of bad luck. He sulked for nearly two games after losing his serve in the second set against González. Cheered by a spirited band of Chileans, the fourth-seeded González blasted 18 forehand winners in the victory.
"I don't have fear if I miss that important point," González said, trying to explain what makes his forehand so feared. "If you don't take a risk, you don't gain."
González holds a 3-0 career record against del Potro, but they last played each other at the 2007 Australian Open, when the Argentine was just 17.
"He's a different player now," González said of del Potro. "He's one of the new generation and having good results the past year."
In defeating Karlovic, Roddick may not have shown a mastery of every element of his game. There was ragged play on both sides of the net in stretches, with more rallies decided by errors than outright winners.
But Roddick did show command of his on-court comportment, apart from a minor meltdown after he was broken to open the second set and blasted a ball out of stadium with sufficient force to plop down in Rockville.
The venting was over in a matter of seconds, and Roddick went back to playing smart tennis.
"You're at his mercy on his first serve," Roddick said of Karlovic, who finished with 13 aces to Roddick's seven. "You're just reacting. You're just trying to survive and put it anywhere in the court."
A capacity crowd of 7,500 was on hand for the high-powered evening session, with Roddick and Karlovic providing top billing.
Playing in his first tournament since Wimbledon, Roddick hasn't been happy with his serve through his first two matches in Washington. And he was mindful entering Friday's match that holding his own serve would be imperative, given how daunting it is to break the Croat.
"It's immense," said Roddick, who held a 4-1 career record against Karlovic, on the eve of the match. "It's one of those matches where you can play really well and lose. Against him, a lot of it is out of your control because of the way he serves."
But in just the fourth game of Friday's first set, Roddick lost his serve, broken on a forehand volley that ended up in the net.
"Getting down early a break against Karlovic is a recipe for disaster," Roddick said afterward. "That's absolutely NOT the way you want to go about managing that match."
Given his height, Karlovic isn't particularly fleet or agile on the court. But while he has worked hard to fashion himself into an multi-dimensional player, his backhand remains a liability. And shoe-top volleys are particularly tricky for him to pull off.
Roddick played to precisely those aspects of Karlovic's game, with good result.
After leveling the first set at four games each, Roddick forced a tiebreak and embellished his impressive record in the format, placing his first serves smartly and staying in the points long enough to coax an error out of his opponent. In Karlovic's case, the errors were a volley that sailed long and a backhand that found the net.
Roddick opened the second set with a careless game and paid for it.
But a well-executed lob (no easy feat against a 6-10 opponent) helped him break back in the fourth game. Again, the tiebreak that followed went Roddick's way.
"I consider myself fortunate to get out of [getting broken] once -- much less twice," Roddick said.