INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — It was 2011. Ivo Karlovic was already an ATP Tour veteran with graying temples, and his close friend and former coach Tarik Benhabiles was talking about Karlovic’s serve, and his future.
“He has a huge weapon,” Benhabiles told me. “He can play until he’s 40 years old, no problem.”
Kudos to Benhabiles, who once helped Andy Roddick become a force, for knowing his tennis. But, above all, kudos to Karlovic, the 6-foot-11 Croatian, for finding a way to fight and serve through everything life has thrown at him.
It has hardly been “no problem,” but Karlovic turned 40 on Feb. 28, and he is definitely still playing.
He has won three rounds at the BNP Paribas Open this year and is now the oldest man to win a singles match at a Masters 1000 event. On Wednesday, with plenty of gray in his beard now as well as in his temples, Karlovic will deploy his fearsome weapon against Dominic Thiem, the No. 7 seed, for a place in the quarterfinals.
At 25, Thiem is 15 years younger than Karlovic — but then just about everybody on tour is younger than Karlovic, including some of his former rivals who are now coaches.
“He’s older than me!” said Ivan Ljubicic, the 39-year-old co-coach of Roger Federer, who remains the most prominent graybeard in men’s tennis but is still Karlovic’s junior at 37.
Karlovic has remained a factor by overcoming a major Achilles’ tendon injury in 2010 and encephalitis in 2013, which caused debilitating headaches and left him temporarily without feeling in his right arm.
He has remained a force by focusing on fitness and dropping weight to take the pressure off his knees and other joints. He is down to 225 pounds, from 245 in 2011.
On court, Karlovic has learned to maximize his strengths and accept his weaknesses. He will never have a drive backhand, but his one-handed slice is crisp enough. And though his lateral mobility remains limited compared to his competitors, his forehand is huge and his serve-and-volley style is even more unusual and disorienting in this baseline-focused era.
In truth, his style is often serve-and-no-volley. He has slammed an ATP record 13,235 aces. Along the way, he has definitively proven, like it or not, that there is a place in a movement-based game for players of towering height like the 6-10 John Isner, the 33-year-old American star, and the 6-11 Reilly Opelka, a 21-year-old from the U.S. who is hitting aces at a rapid clip of his own.
“If you look at any sport, everywhere there are taller guys, so I know that is the future in tennis,” Karlovic said, as he has said for years.
Ljubicic, who had a huge serve of his own and will turn 40 this month, grew up playing junior tournaments with Karlovic in Croatia and elsewhere. It was a time of war in the former Yugoslavia, and tennis was often the least of the youngsters’ concerns.
Fearing for their lives, Ljubicic’s family fled Bosnia and ended up briefly in a refugee camp in Croatia. Ljubicic eventually ended up honing his game in an Italian tennis club and reaching No. 3 in the world in 2006 before retiring in 2012.
Karlovic stayed in Zagreb, the Croatian capital. He was the son of well-educated professionals: his father a meteorologist; his mother an agronomist.
“In Zagreb, there were not a lot of airstrikes, but I spent a lot of time in the bomb shelters,” Karlovic said of his early teens. “It was always airstrike warnings.”
Funds were short, and so was quality coaching and court time. Karlovic had already decided he preferred tennis to basketball despite attempts to recruit him. He would wait until the evening when the tennis courts in Zagreb were empty and then use the balls he could find and hit serves on his own, sometimes after dark.
“It was the only way I could practice,” he said. “I would like people to know that my serve is not only that good because of my height. I worked on it a lot.”
He did not find a regular coach until his early 20s, and despite his imposing presence he managed to fly far below the radar until the first round of Wimbledon in 2003, where, as an all-but-unknown qualifier in an age before social media, he upset the defending champion Lleyton Hewitt in four sets on Centre Court.
“It was not easy: I was looking around at all these huge courts I never had a chance to play on before,” Karlovic said. “I lost the first set 6-1, but after that I just kind of calmed down and started playing my game, and then after the match, it was not easy because everybody wanted to know, who am I?”
What made it harder was the pronounced stammer that Karlovic has had since boyhood, which made public speaking excruciating.
“I was just thinking to myself, this is what you have to do if you want to become a good player,” he said of post-match news conferences. “You’re going to have to do it.”
Nearly 16 years later, the stammer is much less pronounced, and Karlovic has become not only an excellent player but an enduring one. He peaked in the rankings at No. 14 in 2008 but was still in the top 20 last year before injuries contributed to him dropping to No. 138 in September.
Instead of calling it a career, Karlovic chose to head back to tennis’s minor leagues with the goal of making the main draw of the Australian Open. If he didn’t achieve that goal, he would retire. He played in a series of ATP Challenger events in the final months of 2018, winning one in Calgary.
Australia beckoned. But Karlovic, now based in Plantation, Fla., said one of the biggest challenges has been leaving his family behind. He and his wife, Alsi, have two children: a 7-year-old daughter, Jada, and an 18-month-old son, Noah.
“I had to leave on Christmas Day to get to a tournament in India,” he said. “So everybody was home. We had friends over, family, and then after lunch I was on the way to the airport. It was really difficult. My kids were crying and stuff, so it wasn’t easy, but on the other hand, I am doing this also because of them, you know? So they don’t have it as hard as I had it. So maybe that evens out the pain for me.”
He wanted Jada to have a memory of him as a professional tennis player.
“But now I also have a little one who is one-and-a-half years old,” said Karlovic, now ranked No. 89. “So I guess for him to remember me I’m going to have to play at least another eight more years.”
Presumably not even Benhabiles is ready to predict that.