Tradition dictates that the defending men’s singles champion plays the first game on Centre Court at the following year’s Championship. It’s meant to be a procession, a final chance for the champion to bathe in the acclaim before the title is up for grabs again.
Nobody told that to qualifier Ivo Karlovic. Ranked 203 in the world, playing in his first Grand Slam and sharing a £25-a-night room with his coach in Earls Court, the Croatian became just the second player in history to beat the defending men’s champion in the opening game when he rolled Lleyton Hewitt on Centre Court in 2003.
In the first set things went according to plan as Hewitt ran Karlovic ragged, making him look awkward and ungainly, like a baby giraffe, to win the first set 6-1. But thereafter two switches tripped — one turning Karlovic on and the other Hewitt off — as Karlovic won the next three sets and the match rather easily.
This match is seared into my memory, not only because I was on Centre Court that day but because it was the cause of great professional embarrassment. At the time I was the sports editor of TNT Magazine — London’s most popular weekly magazine for Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans. To celebrate Australia’s defending champion, I had printed a ‘cut out and keep Little Lleyton Hewitt’ mask (see picture) in every edition of the magazine that came out on the Monday. With Hewitt losing in the opening game, the masks were relevant for all of, oh, five or six hours.
Hewitt’s loss meant he got an extra two weeks off during Wimbledon, whereas I had to front up at work the next day and explain what we could do with 150,000 Lleyton Hewitt masks [see below].