Grass isn't meaner anymore

An. Absurd. Tennis. Match. With. Really. Short. Points. And. Almost. Zero. Rallies. Played. Wimbledon. On. Friday.

Really, that thing on Court No. 1 between 6-foot-10, No. 33-ranked Ivo Karlovic and charismatic, No. 9-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga hearkened to the 1990s, when pulverizing servers such as Goran Ivanisevic and Richard Krajicek made tennis savants wring their hands.

And the weird thing is that Karlovic vs. Tsonga counted as weird. Because in general, time and again anymore, you hear players report the slowing of the Wimbledon grass and the fattening of the tennis balls on whatever tennis balls eat.

"I think the balls have a huge thing to do with it," said Mardy Fish, the American serve-and-volleyer who lost, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, to elite defensive baseliner Novak Djokovic. "They're so heavy."

Over at Karlovic-Tsonga, though, the balls posed as BBs.

Against Karlovic's serve, "You cannot do nothing," Tsonga said in a double-negative after losing and doing nothing against a player who, against Tsonga's serve, did next to nothing.

The four-set match had 48 games, three tiebreakers, one service break and two -- two! -- deuces. Karlovic yielded four total points in six service games in the third set and zero in his first six service games in the fourth. Tsonga yielded four in the third and two in the fourth. A score of 15-30 became scintillating.

Karlovic, who served 55 aces in a first-round match with Lleyton Hewitt at the French Open, won 22 straight service points straddling the first two sets.

He apparently deemed that insufficient so he won 31 straight service points straddling the last two sets -- until he completely botched it and egregiously lost one point on serve in the fourth-set tiebreaker of his 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (5) win.

He closed with an ace, shockingly.

Asked whether it irked him that people thought he was just a big serve running around with incidental other shots, the 30-year-old said, "No. I mean, I like it, because if I can win with only one shot, I'm, I don't know, a genius."

Thereby did Croatian wit grace a day in which titans clambered through mild trouble to reach fourth rounds.

That would include Serena Williams, who felt she didn't play great in her 6-3, 6-4 win over the crafty Roberta Vinci of Italy, and Roger Federer, who actually lost a set.

The Earth continued rotating on its axis, though, as Federer saw off Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany, 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (3), 6-1, giving him a 43-1 record (plus a walkover) here since 2003.

Only Karlovic-Tsonga could bring an odd duck of a match into a strange new world with faster French Open clay and slower Wimbledon grass.

As a sterling exhibit, the No. 25-ranked Fish plied the olden Wimbledon strategy against one of the princes of Planet Baseline, and wound up slightly flummoxed.

"Are you supposed to play it maybe like a U.S. Open-type court, you know, a faster hard court?" Fish said. "But it's almost slower than that. I'm trying to figure out exactly how you're supposed to play it, a guy like me."

A 27-year-old guy like him grew up watching serve-and-volley as the Wimbledon way -- "watching . . . Pete [Sampras] and like Goran, guys like Tim Henman" -- only to find an altered wonderland and reckon he'll need to hunt more balance.

Throw in the improved athletic prowess of the opponents and, Fish said, "You know, you can't get away with a mediocre first volley anymore."

Well, that is unless you're Karlovic on Friday, in which case you don't have to make the first volley.

As Federer put it in French, playing Karlovic is "not like a tennis match."

Now, there's a man who clearly knows tennis when doesn't see it.

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chuck.culpepper@yahoo.com

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