Advantage to power players this year
A new brand of tennis balls being used at the French Open could help the big hitters shine.
How are the courts playing? It's a common question heard around the players' lounge leading up to a Grand Slam, and the answer often foretells which brand of player will filter through the early rounds to dominate the second week of the event. This year, there's a second question to be asked -- how are the balls playing?
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That's because a different brand of balls is being used at the French Open this year, thanks to a new sponsorship deal that runs for five years. The early consensus is that the Babolat balls are faster than last year's Dunlops, potentially giving an edge to big servers and power players.
They are described in the official guide as "using double vulcanization and high quality felt" and "lively and durable," which sounds suitably impressive, as well as being "perfectly" suited to playing on clay. Whether a player agrees with that last adjective depends on who you ask. "These are very fast balls," said David Ferrer, who relies on quickness and consistency to play his extremely effective brand of clay-court tennis. "They have been engineered for fast-court players with very good serve."
Add to this the sunshine that Paris has enjoyed over the past couple of weeks, baking and hardening the clay courts. It all means the conditions are unusually quick.
There'll be a taste of just how quick on Monday, which opens with a meeting between the tour's biggest server, Ivo Karlovic, and one of its most monstrous strikers, Juan Martin del Potro. Del Potro's return is much anticipated, the first time he'll play here since he almost took down eventual champ Roger Federer in the semifinals in 2009. After missing most of last year because of wrist problems that eventually led to surgery and injuring his hip at the Masters event in Madrid earlier this month, del Potro comes in as a question mark -- short on match practice but capable of making a dent in the tournament if he can return to pre-hip injury form.
Delpo says he is physically almost recovered, but still feeling a little discomfort every now and again. Adding that he is more hopeful about the rest of the season than this event, the 22-year-old described Karlovic as a "very dangerous" opponent.
Should he navigate past Karlovic, all eyes will shift two rounds forward to a possible meeting with Novak Djokovic, a clash between the two men seen as most capable of challenging five-time champion Rafael Nadal here over the next few years. "I don't want to think about Djokovic, just go match by match," del Potro said. "I know what my present is, my past as well, and want to build a better future."
The closing stages of the day will see another touted up-and-comer, Milos Raonic, make his French Open debut. The big-serving Raonic has taken the tour by storm this year, reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open, winning the 250-level event in San Jose and losing to Andy Roddick in a three-set thriller in the 500 event in Memphis the following week. The Canadian, who trains in Barcelona, had a few respectable wins early in the clay season but took early losses in Madrid and the Masters event in Rome leading up to the French Open. "It let me refresh a bit and get a little bit more hungry," he said, but like del Potro, tried to lower expectations for the tournament.
"I think it's more trying to enjoy it and trying to soak up the experience being my first time playing [the French Open] as a professional," said the 20-year-old. "I'm just looking to build off it, it's a starting point."
He has had the best possible preparation the day before his opening-round match against Michael Berrer, practicing against Nadal on the grounds Sunday.
The quick conditions should also spell good news for attack-minded Mardy Fish, the top American thanks to Roddick's withdrawal.
But the effect of the balls is not quite as simple as that, the uber-sensitive Federer pointed out after practicing with them ahead of the tournament. "The thing is, there is a great difference when the balls are new or when they get old," he said. "That will be an issue.
"It might be a bit difficult in the beginning, but in the end, they're not that fast. Sometimes spectators don't even notice that there is a change of balls, but we do. That's a moment when we need to be very focused."
And focus will be required when Federer takes on Feliciano Lopez in his first match, also on Monday. The stylish, attacking Lopez nearly took out Federer in Madrid but will have a harder time hanging with the Swiss over five sets.
"The balls are quite different from the ones we played in the tournaments before Roland Garros, and Roland Garros last year," said Djokovic, who opens against big-serving Thiemo de Bakker before Federer on the main show court.
"The ball probably helps me," Andy Murray said. "But I would rather we just played with the same ball throughout each part of the season."
But no one should get too comfortable. Rain, which is forecast for later in the event, would change things dramatically, muddying the court and slowing it down. Traditionally, that benefits clay-court grinders, but last year big bombers like Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych hit through their opponents.
One way or the other, though, the power hitters are worth keeping an eye on these next two weeks.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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