Commentary

The return of big-boy tennis

Updated: March 14, 2012, 9:48 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- It isn't exactly Legionnaire's disease, but the 2012 BNP Paribas Open will be known for two things: The first is the Coachella Valley mystery illness that has knocked out nine players so far, and weakened Roger Federer.

According to the Eisenhower Medical Center, the virus is passed through air and symptoms include vomiting, fever and subsequent diarrhea. It is said to last 24 to 48 hours. Francesca Schiavone, Gael Monfils, Vera Zvonareva, Andreas Seppi, Philipp Kohlschreiber and, on Wednesday, Mike Bryan, half of the top doubles teams in the world, have all been sent to the infirmary, withdrawing from the tournament.

The second staple of this year's tournament has been the return of big-boy tennis, evidenced by the showings of 6-foot-9 inch John Isner, who reached the quarterfinals, 6-foot-6 Juan Martin del Potro and a rousing third-round appearance by 6-foot-5 Milos Raonic. Last year, the top 10 was composed of a judicious blend of power, guile and contrast. The indefatigable 5-foot-9 David Ferrer was sandwiched at No. 5 between the power of Andy Murray at No. 4 and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at six. The bottom half of the top 10 at Nos. 8 and 9 were Mardy Fish and Janko Tipsarevic, two solid ball-strikers who do not rely solely on power. Fish is at his best with the serve-and-volley and Tipsarevic, like Ferrer, aren't going to blow opponents off the court, but can outlast most players with consistency and surprise attacks at net.

But Fish continued what is looking like a spiral out of the top 10, getting bounced in straight sets in the second round by qualifier and world No. 91 Matthew Ebden. Forget tournaments, Fish hasn't won back-to-back matches since reaching the finals at Sydney before the Australian Open and at 30 years old is in danger not only of seeing his impressive run of 2011 plateau at No. 8 but begin a serious slide backward.

Despite losing to David Nalbandian in the third round Tuesday night, Tipsarevic is in slightly better shape than Fish, but the big hitters are pressuring the list. Del Potro, he of the big serve and bigger forehand, already passed Tipsarevic at ninth and is quickly starting to look like the force he was in 2009, pre-wrist injury when he took out Nadal and Federer to win the U.S. Open. He's won one tournament (Marseille) and in three of his four tournaments in 2012 ended by losing to Federer, in the semis at Dubai, the final at Rotterdam and the quarterfinals at the Australian Open. Del Potro has reached at least the quarters in every tournament he has played this year.

By the end of the U.S. Open, it was clear that Fish was going to have a hard time maintaining not only his top-10 ranking but also his standing as the top-ranked American. Isner, now 11th, is on the verge of the top 10, and there is nothing mysterious about his game: big serve, big forehand, deceptive drop shot after pushing opponents beyond the baseline. In finishing Ebden in the fourth round Wednesday, Isner topped out at 139 mph.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ferre
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesHow much longer can David Ferrer keep up with today's physically imposing players?

And then there's the 21-year-old Raonic, who took the first set from Federer in their first-ever meeting Tuesday. After surviving a 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-4 battle, Federer said Raonic will soon be a "top-10 player." Raonic and Isner are 1-2 in the ATP rankings in aces.

Still, the Raonic-Federer match provided the blueprint for what the big boys must learn. Raonic threw heat at Federer, topping out his serve at 142 mph, but in the end, the Federer precision was too much for Raonic's power and inexperience. After the first set, the great master moved Raonic right and left, forward and back, forcing him to play defense and find different shots. Federer used virtually no backswing in returning serve, using Raonic's power against him, forcing him to play a point. As Federer put more of Raonic's first serves in play -- Raonic won 96 percent of his first-serve points in the first set, 59 and 64 percent in the second and third -- his demeanor drooped, and so did his chances.

Of course, it should also be noted that while Federer is not often mentioned in the conversation of big-boy hitters, he served consistently between 115 and 125 mph and did not lose serve all night against Raonic.

The good news is that guile, smarts and heart are not exactly dead. Tipsarevic, Fish and Ferrer aren't getting blown off of the court (though it is clear that even at No. 5 and with tremendous determination and heart, Ferrer's physical limitations are ultimately exposed the deeper a major progresses). Fish and Tipsarevic just happened to have late starts in their careers and the slide is inexorable in the young man's game.

The bad news is that power can't be taught, and all the quickness and guile is no substitute for a 140-mph serve.