A rite of passage, for any young tennis player, is figuring out how to defeat the servebot. A servebot is a large person with two simple desires: to crush serves as fast as possible and to move around the court as little as possible. The servebot will not play long rallies. He will give you no chance to establish a rhythm. The servebot wants a match decided in tiebreaks and staccato points. Shapo’s opponent today at Delray Beach, Ivo Karlovic, is the servebot extraordinaire. He’s 38, and has refined his servebot praxis into an (unattractive, honestly nearly unwatchable) art. Over the last 52 weeks, the world No. 78 Karlovic has won 94.3 percent of his service games, which is unfathomably consistent and better even than second-place Roger Federer, who has won 92.6 percent. Karlovic’s game is so irregular and uncomfortable that, despite his excellent sense of humor, no player no on tour ever even wants to practice with him. Practice!
Shapo struggled with the servebot puzzle in the early moments. He went down an early break, which is typically a death sentence against Karlovic, during the first set. Yet he hung around to break back, then break again, winning the set 7-5, then took the second 7-6(4) after grinding out the standard Karlovic tiebreak. Shapo found just enough break points—three—to squeak out with the win. It’s always a game of fine margins against Ivo.
Most impressive, aside from his resilience in the face of Karlovic’s implacable servebottery, was Shapovalov’s in-match problem-solving. Shapo typically likes to take big, dramatic cuts at the ball, and moves well enough to get himself in good position for those cuts; this accounts for the raw charisma of his game. But Karlovic’s serve affords a player—even a mobile player—effectively no time in which to do that. With a serve like Ivo’s, all you have time to do is put your racket on it, and even that is a prayer. Over the course of this afternoon, Shapo learned to tighten his return, and so began compactly blocking some neat return winners off one of the most commanding servers in tennis history.
Here’s one on the ad side:
One of the deuce side:
And one on match point:
It’s good to know how to do this. These skills will serve him well. After all, Shapo will be seeing plenty of Karlovic, and John Isner, and Milos Raonic in the years to come—maybe even later this week.