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Sunday, May 20, 2012
The arrival of power hitters on clay

By Kamakshi Tandon
ESPN.com

ROME -- When Robin Soderling defeated Rafael Nadal at the French Open in 2009, he wasn't just pulling off one of the bigger upsets in tennis history, he was also signaling the arrival of power players as a real force on clay. Another big hitter, Fernando Gonzalez, also made the semifinals that year, losing to Soderling. The next year, Soderling defeated Roger Federer, and then faced Tomas Berdych in another cannonball contest in the semifinals.

Soderling, who continues to be sidelined with mononucleosis, will not be at the French this year. But many of his fellow power baseliners will be present, and they are expected to provide some of the toughest tests for the favorites during the upcoming fortnight.

The terre has traditionally favored consistency and solid groundstrokes over big serves and booming forehands, but big bashers recently have been encroaching on this territory. Although clay-court experts like David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro still thrive at this time of year, they have repeatedly come up short against Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer when the three are fully fit. The tall, powerful players who really whale the ball may not be as reliable week-to-week, but they can blow anyone off the court on a good day, making them the biggest threat to wreak havoc on the draw and pull off an unlikely upset.

What's behind their recent emergence on clay? Here are explanations from the four most dangerous giant hitters who will be lurking in the French Open draw.

Tomas Berdych

Already a former semifinalist at the French Open, the 26-year-old 6-foot-5 Czech has put together an impressive run on clay so far this season. His only losses have been to Djokovic (Monte Carlo semifinal), Federer (Madrid final) and Nadal (Rome quarterfinals), while his wins include Andy Murray, Juan Martin del Potro, Almagro and Gael Monfils.

He has also beaten the top three at one time or another, most notably Federer and Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2010, when he made the final before losing to Nadal.

Although his style is better suited to faster courts, he feels his familiarity with the surface is why his game translates easily to the clay.

"I wouldn't say that the clay is not one of my favorites," Berdych said in Monte Carlo. "I think only if somebody gives me the question and I have to say one surface, then I'm kind of forced to say something faster. But I [first learned] to play on clay courts. I have good results."

His recent consistency and past results mean Berdych is more than capable of pulling off an upset. The only question for this nearly man of tennis is whether he can seize the moment when the finish line approaches. But as the seventh seed in Paris, he's a name none of the big three will want in their quarter of the draw.

Juan Martin del Potro

Juan Martin Del Potro
Juan Martin del Potro will face Rafael Nadal at the BNP Paribas Showdown.

Unusually for an Argentine, the 6-foot-6 del Potro grew up on hard courts but still reached the French Open semifinals in 2009, the same year he won the U.S. Open.

He sees rise of the big hitters as natural given the conditions and playing styles that currently prevail.

"The courts, I think, is getting faster at all the tournaments, and the ball is changing to play more faster than many years ago," del Potro said in Rome last week. "Also the players are getting more power to play more aggressive."

Perhaps more significantly for his own prospects, the 23-year-old del Potro now sounds truly positive about his own chances again for perhaps the first time in his long, slow comeback from wrist surgery in 2010.

"I'm really enjoying this sport again and I'm really glad to be here," he said. "I'm really confident in my game at this moment."

He hasn't yet won the kind of big match he needs to show that he's mentally all the way back, but the top seeds in Paris will all hope that he's not in their way. Back to No. 9 in the rankings, he and his big forehand could run into the likes of Djokovic, Nadal, Federer or fifth seed Ferrer as early as the fourth round.

John Isner

After becoming the first player to play Nadal in a fifth set at the French Open and beating Federer on indoor clay in Davis Cup in February (and a hard-court win over Djokovic in Indian Wells), the 6-foot-10 Isner is rapidly becoming the tour's giant killer -- unexpectedly, even on clay courts.

"Big guys can play on clay," Isner, 27, told ESPN.com last week. "It gives just more time on our shots. And generally the ball tends to bounce higher on clay, and naturally for a big guy, bigger player, that's going to help. So as long as you can get adjusted to the movement on a clay court, it's a pretty nice transition for a bigger player."

Ranked No. 10 last week, Isner will be one of the top 16 seeds going into the French Open, which means he couldn't draw the likes of Nadal in the first round this time. Instead, the big-serving American have to wait until at least the fourth round for a crack at any of the top eight. His first job will be to get there. Despite impressive wins in the Davis Cup quarterfinals against Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and then a final in Houston, Isner has won just one match in the European Masters events. As usual with Isner, it should be an interesting ride.

Milos Raonic

The 21-year-old, 6-foot-5 Canadian is being billed as the tour's next big thing, and has given the top players a lot of trouble during the clay-court season. He pushed Federer to a third-set tiebreaker in Madrid and defeated Murray in Barcelona before falling to Ferrer in a touch match in the semifinals.

"I feel we as players hit big enough that our shots are still effective on clay," Raonic said in an interview last week in Rome. "The big guys are moving better so that's not really that much of a weakness for us. So I feel like we can move well and I think our shots are more penetrating, even on the red clay."

It also helps that Raonic has a Spanish coach, Galo Blanco, and trains in Barcelona, where he also practiced for his comeback from hip surgery last year.

"Especially last year dealing with that injury, I spent quite a bit of time on clay, learning how to move again," Raonic said. "It's good to be able to feel a lot more comfortable, especially since this is considered to be the most difficult part of the season for me."

Though his ranking is in the mid-twenties, that's enough to get Raonic one of the coveted top 24 seeds, meaning he won't face any of the top eight until at least the third round. That's good news for him as he seeks "a bit of a better draw" after getting Federer in the second round of Madrid two weeks ago and a potential date with Nadal in the second round of Rome, if Raonic had won his opener there last week.