Editor’s Note: But for the COVID-19 pandemic, Wimbledon would now be underway. During the next two weeks, ATPTour.com will look back on memorable matches and happenings at the grass-court Grand Slam.
Grand Slam debuts don’t get much more memorable than this.
Ivo Karlovic, a 24-year-old qualifier ranked No. 203 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, strode out onto Centre Court at 1:00pm to face top seed and defending champion Lleyton Hewitt in their first-round 2003 Wimbledon match. Less than three hours later, Hewitt’s title reign ended as the Croatian scored a shocking 1-6, 7-6(5), 6-3, 6-4 upset.
Hewitt’s exit marked the first time in the Open Era that a defending men’s singles champion lost in the opening round at the All England Club. It only happened once before in the tournament’s 126-year history (Charlie Pasarell d. Manuel Santana, 1967). But for Karlovic, the result was perfectly logical once he got used to his surroundings.
“I saw him play last week and he didn’t play anything special. I was pretty prepared to win,” Karlovic said after the match. “The first set, I was completely scared. After I saw that I can beat him, I started to play better.”
Karlovic had just four tour-level wins to his name and only one victory over a Top 100 player. He nearly didn’t even make it to the main draw and was two points from losing his second-round qualifying match against Juan Pablo Guzman. But what he lacked in experience, the 6’11” Croatian made up for with a booming serve that stunned those in attendance.
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He shook off a slow start, cut the double faults out of his game and started delivering rockets that the Aussie struggled to get a racquet on. When Hewitt managed to put his opponent’s serves back in play, it only took a few steps for the towering Karlovic to reach the net and knock off winning volleys.
Hewitt’s tactics were questionable as he frequently attempted to lob over Karlovic instead of hitting passing shots. Despite this, he reached set point with Karlovic serving at 4-5 in the second set, only to miss a playable return on his chance for a two-sets lead.
Once the Croatian survived that game, his slice approaches and surprising feel around the net added extra pressure to the Aussie’s service games as he comfortably took care of his own. Karlovic served out the match with ease and raised his arms in triumph.
”When I missed those opportunities early in the second set, his whole game sort of came together,” Hewitt said. ”He didn’t make as many easy mistakes.’’
Karlovic’s dream run ended in the third round to Max Mirnyi, but he made his Top 100 debut that September and has remained a perennial ATP Tour staple since then.