NEW YORK -- I've never been a particular fan of "big man tennis," the phenomenon of basketball-sized players crushing massive serves and forehands, often at the expense of quickness and variety and completeness, sweeping the tennis world. Fighting the tide, however, would be like lamenting the existence of the 3-point shot. There's no going back. The game is being transformed into the land of the giants, and Tuesday's trip around the grounds proved the future nears only too well.
Prospecting is the fun part of sports, especially among the fans who fancy anticipating the future stars, gathering their street cred by bragging that they were the first to discover the rising star, the tennis equivalent of saying, "I listened to Lady Gaga before she was really popular." Raonic, the 6-foot-5-inch hulk from Canada, along with Jerzy Janowicz and Kei Nishikori, is one of the fashionable picks to remake the top 10 in the coming months. Raonic's arrival on court Tuesday against world No. 176 Fabbiano was accompanied by considerable buzz.
Raonic eventually won the match in straights but won the crowd on the first serve of the match, when he bombed a 141 mph ace, followed by serves of 134 mph and an ace out wide at 115. Big man tennis had begun. Instead of following the ball across the net -- left, right, left, right, point, applause -- watching big man tennis is to alternate looking at the court and the radar gun. Raonic elicited gasps whenever he swung the racket, like when he ripped a 124 mph second serve to go up 2-1 in the first set or a 145 mph serve while serving for the first set at 5-3 that, thus far, is the fastest serve of the tournament. The spectacle was even more pronounced during changeovers, when the goliath Raonic would pass the 5-foot-8, 154-pound Fabbiano, and the crowd would gaze at Raonic as though he'd invaded Lilliput.
Of course, if Raonic is to become a top player as predicted, the real takeaway from the afternoon isn't that he out-aced Fabbiano 28-0, but how, once again, returning, the great Achilles' heel of the big man game, made this first-round match far closer than it needed to be.
Throughout the afternoon, the big boys would be on display. In addition to Raonic's 28 aces, 6-foot-10 John Isner would rack up 16 aces in destroying Filippo Volandri. Six-foot-6 Sam Querrey crushed 24 aces in beating Guido Pella. Here's their dirty little secret: The big men can't return. The ATP tracks return games won, and of the 73 players ranked, four of the lowest eight names are Janowicz (No. 66 at 18 percent), Querrey (No. 67 at 17 percent), Raonic (No. 70 at 15 percent) and lastly at 73, Isner at 12 percent.
Not surprisingly, four of the five highest-ranked players in this category -- David Ferrer (1), Rafael Nadal (2), Novak Djokovic (3) and Andy Murray (5) -- are the top four players in the world. Still, the radar gun lit up, the crowd exclaimed and Raonic's glass ceiling remained.
Court 11: Maximo Gonzalez defeats Jerzy Janowicz 6-4, 6-4, 6-2
What a sight watching Jerzy Janowicz, the darling of Wimbledon, crumble from frustration. He blasted a tennis ball out of the stadium not once, but twice in receiving a code violation, then lay on a towel on the court, three thick strips of physio tape on his lower right back.
The big man Janowicz, who went to the semifinals and lost to eventual Wimbledon champ Andy Murray, is gone, underscoring the difficulties of being an heir apparent and duplicating any previous successes.
And so it was 6-foot-8 Janowicz was taken out in straight sets by 5-foot-9 Argentine Gonzalez, 30, and ranked 247 in the world. Janowicz was stricken by bad luck, he says, and it was fatal. Three days before the match, Janowicz hurt his back. He doesn't know how. At this point, he doesn't care. He received an injection. He tried therapy and acupuncture and all it got him was a grueling battle with a gnawing, relentless clay-courter who has never been ranked higher than 58th. Gonzalez was hell-bent on making the final Grand Slam of the year a nightmare.
Janowicz's meltdown elicited thoughts of Roger Federer, not because the Swiss ever falls apart like that but because it only underscores what an amazing set of circumstances it takes to do what the Swiss has done. No ornery mood, bad conditions, tougher opponent or unfortunate injury has kept Federer from reaching the second round of a Slam in the past decade. Janowicz, the 140 mph man, was hitting serves at 78 mph. He dropped 11 double faults. He even served one ball underhand.
"I couldn't serve. I couldn't turn. I couldn't rotate," he said. "I asked the trainer for more painkillers but because of my injection they wouldn't give me more. … It's disappointing."
Still, Janowicz had opportunities. He received a medical timeout down a set and 4-1, returned and won the next three games. For short bursts, he ripped menacing forehands and powered through with big serves.
Serving 4-4, Janowicz was broken in the game, mentally and physically. The 14-seed, the dream of backing up Wimbledon with a deep run in New York, all of it, went up in flames.