In the U.S. Open quarterfinals, Janko Tipsarevic and David Ferrer gave New York a tennis classic. They whipped forehands side to side and chased down backhands, combining for 109 winners over 332 total points played in five sets over four-and-a-half grinding, grueling hours.
Until the final, when Andy Murray beat Novak Djokovic in another classic, tantalizing five-setter, Tipsarevic-Ferrer had been the best match of the tournament. This spurred a couple of thoughts as the calendar moves forward:
1)Anyone who preferred watching John Isner to this doesn't really like tennis.
2)Perhaps, for all the hype, the game of "big-man tennis" has reached its ceiling.
Over the past few years in the men's game, the tennis substory to the greatness of the big three has been the rise of the giants. Juan Martin del Potro, all of 6-foot-7, pounds tennis balls into powder with his forehand. In the third round, 6-5 Milos Raonic ripped so many aces by James Blake, he made him look like a lacrosse goalie instead of a tennis player. Over the course of the year, it is common to see Isner's second serve bounce over the head of more than one returner.
The power forehands, killer serves, impossible angles and gargantuan size of the players has even generated its own moniker of "big-man tennis," and del Potro's wins over Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer consecutively to with the Open three years ago only accelerated the belief that the future had become the present.
Lately, however, the game has seen something of a market correction, or at least a slowing of the tide. Ferrer and Tipsarevic returned the game, at least for one afternoon, to its aesthetically pleasing roots. (Is it really enjoyable to watch a guy who can't keep the ball in play for more than five shots?) Both, along with Philipp Kohlschreiber, also revealed that while big-man tennis has not exactly been a failure, it has been exposed for its limitations.
Championship-level tennis is still a province that continues to be played best at high, but not skyscraper-level, altitude. Murray won his first major, and at 6-3 he is still far above average height (unless you hail from the Netherlands or Sudan). But that has been the cutoff, in terms of winning a major, the Masters Series and the top 10. Three of the top 10 (Isner, del Potro and Tomas Berdych) are over 6-4, and two (Ferrer at 5-9 and Tipsarevic at 5-11) are under 6 feet. Federer and Nadal are 6-1. Djokovic is 6-2, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is 6-2.
An inherent fallacy exists around the story of big-man tennis. Against Isner, the 5-10 Kohlschreiber darted and dashed around the court with more agility and played his game with more efficiency. He hit his strokes more accurately. Kohlschreiber, like Ferrer, stepped deep inside the baseline and cut off the high angles on serve and forced the big men to do something few like to do -- rally.
After Raonic dismantled Blake, we thought another big man was ready to ascend. Then Murray neutralized his serve and made him look like Frankenstein.
Meanwhile, although the narrative continues to skew toward what he cannot do, Ferrer has spent the past year taking apart the big man's game. Last week in Davis Cup, Ferrer knocked out the U.S., beating 6-foot-6 Sam Querrey in four sets and in the clincher for Spain over the U.S., beat the 6-9 Isner in four as well. In his past 13 matches against players 6-4 or taller, Ferrer is 13-0, a number that includes crushing del Potro twice on the fast grass at Wimbledon and the fast hard-court Miami, Raonic in Barcelona, and Isner.
Ferrer hasn't lost to a big man in nearly a year since dropping a three-setter at Barclays in the round-robin to Berdych last November.
Despite the weapons and the discomfort, del Potro has turned out to be the exception. He has his major, but has never won a Masters 1000 event. Isner didn't reach the fourth round in any major this year, and -- outside of reaching the quarters last year at the U.S. Open -- hasn't gotten past the fourth round again. It's easy to fall in love with big weapons -- and indeed, big-weapons players probably have a better shot over five sets to beat the big four -- but the sexiness of 140 mph serves notwithstanding, tennis is still a game of quickness and movement and agility, and the big man's game looks unstoppable until massive size is no longer an asset.