In one of the most unexpected Wimbledon finals of the Open era, Lleyton Hewitt defeated David Nalbandian 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 to win the title in 2002. The Australian was one of the favorites a year later, coming to the All England Club as defending champion and three-time Queen’s winner.
Nonetheless, his 2003 Wimbledon campaign proved to be the shortest possible, as qualifier Ivo Karlovic knocked him out 1-6, 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 in two hours and 24 minutes. Thus, Lleyton became the first defending champion to lose in the first round of the biggest tennis event in the world since 1967 and Manolo Santana!
Ranked 203rd, the 24-year-old Croatian made his Major debut on center court at Wimbledon that day. He produced stunning tennis to overcome a slow start and topple the world number one. 2 in four sets, writing one of the most amazing Wimbledon stories of all time.
Ivo had failed to qualify for the first ten Majors, and he had just two ATP wins to his name before facing Lleyton. Yet no one could notice it against Hewitt, blasting 59 service winners and fending off ten of 13 break chances.
Hewitt didn’t know much about the tallest player to ever step on center court and was unprepared to face one booming serve after another. He never found the rhythm after a strong opener, allowing Ivo to control the pace and build momentum.
The Australian got off to a perfect start. It looked like an easy day at the office before Karlovic found his range and started to dominate in the crucial points. He gave his rival no rhythm and avoided longer rallies after playing serve and volley at virtually every point.
Hewitt created a break chance in eight different return games, but that wasn’t enough to see him through. He scored three breaks in the first set and none thereafter! The second set proved crucial, with Lleyton yet to face a break point and creating six chances on the other side, including a set point at 5-4.
World no. 203 Ivo Karlovic surprised Lleyton Hewitt at Wimbledon 2003,
Ivo fended them off and stole the tie-break to level the score at 1-1 and gain massive momentum that carried it through sets three and four. Ivo was broken in the first game of the encounter after a double fault, unable to survive the pressure from the big stage and the rival on the other side of the net.
The Croatian double faulted again in game three to find themselves trailing 3-0 in less than ten minutes. Karlovic had no chance on the return and suffered another break in game seven to send Lleyton 6-1 down after another double fault.
Ivo had to play against a few break points in the second game of the second set, blasting four winners to get out of trouble and put in a good hold that ended his downfall. Hewitt had an even bigger opportunity to get past in Game 4.
He was leading 40-0 before Karlovic erased break points with three service winners and brought the game home with a smash winner after a few twos to level the score at 2-2. With a boost from his side, the Croatian raised his level and served well.
The pressure was on Hewitt, and Karlovic eventually hit a couple twos on the return before facing a set point at 4-5 after Lleyton’s forehand down the winning line. Ivo fired three service winners to get out of jail and stay in contention, setting a tie-break after a love hold in game 12.
He hit two unreturned serves from 5-4 down and closed it with a crossover forehand winner, stealing the set and roaring towards his box. Facing a break point in game three of the third set, Ivo threw another booming serve and delivered a pivoting hold to stay on the positive side.
Lleyton double faulted in game four to hand Ivo the first break point of the game, over 90 minutes from the start. The Aussie gave up the serve after another double fault that put the Croatian up 3-1. Karlovic cemented the advantage with an ace in the next and produced more to find themselves 5-2 ahead.
Hewitt lost ground in those moments, although he saved a set point in the following game to reduce the deficit and force Karlovic to serve for the set. It was no problem for the giant server, hitting four aces in the ninth game to wrap up the set and pull away from a huge upset that had seemed impossible before the second set tiebreaker.
The Australian had a chance to regain his momentum in the second game of the fourth set. Ivo regained his powerful serve to fend off a break chance, and they both served well over the next two games to stay locked at 4-4. 30-15 down in game nine, Lleyton was broken when his backhand landed long, and a qualifier served for the triumph in the ensuing game.
Ivo won three match points with two smash winners and sealed the deal with the 59th service winner. The Croatian pulled off one of the biggest upsets in tennis history, especially at Wimbledon, where something similar has happened only once before!