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Tsonga, Raonic play up to their size

1/9/2012

Tennis is awash in big men, but few of them really play a big game. If the events of the past week are any indication, that may change in 2012. Two of the first three ATP tournaments of the year were won by a pair of tall and/or rangy and beefy pros, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (who won Doha) and Milos Raonic (Chennai).

Actually, the third event was also won by a big man, albeit one who doesn't play what you would call a big game. Andy Murray won at Brisbane, and while he's 6-foot-3, he often plays as if he's emulating David Ferrer, or Nikolay Davydenko.

If you watched that Doha final between Tsonga and his French countryman Gael Monfils, you may have noticed how thoroughly Tsonga imposed himself on his pal. This had nothing to do with size. Monfils is beanpole thin, but he's a full 2 inches taller than Tsonga.

At least, that's according to the ATP's media guide, but I'm withholding my opinion until I get my next chance to stand alongside Jo-Willy.

But even if Tsonga is merely an "L," his game has at least one "X" in front of that letter. And that's just not true of merely tall men like Murray, Marin Cilic or even Tomas Berdych (except on that rare, great day). They often play as if they wish they were smaller. Robin Soderling and Juan Martin del Potro come closer, but you can't have a truly big game if you're not eager to leave the baseline.

You can change my mind about that, but I'll have to see a Cilic or Soderling crush a forehand and then follow it up with a half-volley winner plucked off his shoe tops if you want to convince me. That's something Tsonga does routinely. Does anyone, including Roger Federer, have softer hands and quicker reactions when a volley is called for?

Tsonga is all about controlling the court; he makes it seem smaller than it really is because he's always of a mind to move forward. Combine that sensibility with a monster serve and you have the proverbial "big game" that nobody else seems to have developed recently.

Embarking on 2012 with a career-high ranking of No. 6, Tsonga could do a lot of damage this year. There isn't a player out there, including Djokovic, who can stand up to his combination of power and aggression.

Tsonga has shown some softness, though -- notably his susceptibility to injury and his mental and physical stamina. We can't predict his health, but Tsonga seems to have taken a quantum leap as a warrior over the past 12 months. And his fitness looks improved.

And then there's 21-year-old Raonic, the Canadian lad who emerged as a sensation in the first half of 2011 but went down with an injury that pretty much ruined his year (and required surgery). This kid may not have the cat-like quickness or touch of a Tsonga, but he's an Isner-ish 6-foot-6 and knows how to employ that massive serve.

Raonic rained down 35 aces on poor top-seeded Janko Tipsarevic in the Chennai final, and won it 4-6, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4), showing competitive zeal and skill that takes others years to develop.

"Tipsarevic took it away in the first set," Raonic admitted. "But I took my opportunities in the second and third. My serve is a big factor in my game -- in 99 percent of my matches. My job is to take care of my serve."

Tsonga may articulate his own job description a little differently, taking into account the overstuffed nature of his tool box. But in the end, it amounts to the same thing. Both of these big men know that to play a game as big as you are, you need to impose yourself and take command of the action. And both appear willing and eager to do that.